Traumatic events—such as child abuse, surviving a natural disaster or witnessing a crime—can have a long-term effect on a person’s mental health and well-being. The depth and scope of that pain is often hard for others to recognize, but two St. Louis-area agencies hope to change that.
About 70 people attended two presentations on “Trauma Awareness” at Jennings High School on Tuesday. The sessions are part of an ongoing effort by the St. Louis Regional Health Commission and the St. Louis Mental Health Board to train social workers, school employees and area residents how to recognize and respond to people who have experienced trauma. About 400 people have attended since the sessions began in February, organizers said.
“This is something we really need,” said Jeffrey Irons, who teaches classes at the Father’s Support Center in St. Louis.
“The majority of the guys who are coming through the program have been through a lot of trauma," Irons said. “It causes a lot of stress and frustration, and anger.”
Trauma is incredibly common: studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than half of the U.S. population has experienced at least one traumatic event during their childhood—from physical or sexual abuse, to their parents’ divorce. Though many children are able to build resiliency and move on, others continue to struggle, and experiencing chronic stress (such as ongoing abuse or living in a high-crime neighborhood) can make it even more challenging.
During the session, trainer Patsy Carter of the Missouri Department of Mental Health took a common example: a student who isn’t participating in class, and lashes out at a teacher who confronts her. What the teacher may not know, Carter said, is that the student is being abused at home. What seems like daydreaming could be a stress reaction to being beaten earlier that day. And a light tap on the shoulder from a teacher could be a trigger from her ongoing abuse.
“So her response is, absolutely, to defend herself. She viewed herself as defending herself, her teacher viewed that as her being assaulted,” Carter said.
Carter said that’s why it’s crucial for schools, the criminal justice system and other agencies to understand how trauma impacts a person’s behavior.
“If we want them to get better, we have to do something different than what we’re doing right now,” Carter said. “It’s punishing them for what their brains are telling them to do to keep themselves safe.”
Serena Muhammad of the St. Louis Mental Health Board said her group has worked on trauma treatment programs for the past five years, and asked the RHC to organize the sessions after realizing that the model they used worked well for their clients.
“The premise was that you’re treating the wrong thing. You’re treating the substance abuse, you’re treating the mental illness but you’re not treating the trauma. It’s the root cause of a lot of the things we were trying to treat,” Muhammad said.
In the near future, Muhammad hopes to pull together a group of 30 mental health providers who can train agencies and nonprofits in trauma awareness and treatment.
If you go:
Sessions are put on by the St. Louis Regional Health Commission and are posted on their calendar.
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