Mental Health Intervention Through Trauma Informed Care

When the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out, it sounded the alarm to public health systems across the globe that the system needed to change. Access to healthcare for millions of working Americans dropped as employees lost their health insurance due to layoffs and unemployment. By May 2020, it was estimated that at least 27 million Americans had lost healthcare coverage as over 15% of the country reached unemployment. In the wake of COVID-19, another health crisis threatens the recovery of the region: trauma. 

Trauma has to do with actual or perceived danger that overwhelms person ability to function in their day-to-day lives. People can develop trauma from deployment to war zones to periods of high stress. When we think about trauma we often don’t realize how pervasive it is in our day-to-day lives.  In fact, over 70% of adults in the US will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives with nearly 33% of those individuals developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And while many individuals are exposed to traumatic events, few seek treatment or training on how to respond. 

It’s no surprise that historic levels of unemployment, an unprecedented pandemic, and ongoing civil unrest have left Americans with a tremendous level of stress. According to a recent survey conducted by the Harris Poll 46% of parents rated their stress levels as the highest it’s ever been. Limited access to basic needs and healthcare, unstable employment, as well as missed milestones like weddings, graduations and other ceremonies are ranked as some of the leading stressors. 

For children and adults caught in abusive and negligent households, the pandemic has increasingly exposed them to situations of domestic violence. According to the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, the organization reports a 17% increase in the number of calls year over year. 

Meanwhile, pandemic related-stress is having a disproportionate reach on communities of color with 71% reporting anxiety over getting coronavirus vs. white adults at 59%, 61% to 49% over access to basic needs, and 59% to 46% for access to health care. Communities of color also experience a broader range of racial trauma originating from chronic exposure to discriminatory and oppressive systems. 

In light of it all, many local leaders are emphasizing a greater focus on Trauma Informed Care to empower communities with tools to recover from mental and physical trauma.

“When we’re talking about trauma informed care, we’re talking about interventions that take into account how people might be reacting to things that might be far beyond what they can ordinarily handle,” shares Stacey Hardy-Chandler, Director of Center of Children and Families within the Department of Community and Services for the city of Alexandria. 

The techniques of Trauma Informed Care work to mitigate the response people living with trauma have to triggers as opposed to focusing on the traumatic event itself.  Often those who have been exposed to trauma are hyper vigilant to similar forms of danger whether it manifest as anxiety, behavioral issues, or is triggered by familiar situations. 

TIC practitioners first seek to create safe, trusting spaces where trauma can be identified and recognized by the individuals experiencing it. The next step is to empower those under trauma with the tools to self regulate their emotional responses through resilience training—whether that be mindfulness, yoga, reflection and meditation. The last key element to trauma informed care is preventing trauma from becoming cyclical by rerouting destructive habits, behaviors, or emotions into positive outcomes. 

“It’s all about building resilience,” shares Hardy-Chandler. “Helping them identify what’s happening with them neurobiological and providing them with the kinds of tools—that will help them regulate their emotional response to the things they’re experiencing.” 

In many ways, mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic is just the first frontier in what is likely to be a long recovery for our region and across the country. Implementing Trauma Informed Care in places where services are being offered to the public can help communities grapple with the underlying issue of trauma. Whether it’s through schools, clinics, social services, or food banks, creating more safe spaces through resilience based trauma informed care can ensure those living under high levels of stress have the tools to address mental health trauma. 

As United Way of the National Capital Area looks ahead in its work to aid the long-term recovery of the community, recognizing the role of trauma in creating mental health barriers to achievement is imperative. Trauma affects our identity, how we form relationships, early childhood & adolescent development and how we function as adults. 

To bridge the gaps and disparities present across health, education and economic opportunity requires us to be flexible in responding to surges in psychological trauma. With new cases of COVID-19 on the rise, the moratorium on evictions shortly coming to an end, and continued financial instability it’s going to be more important than ever that social systems are equipped with the tools to address what communities need.