Op-Ed: The need for a trauma-informed ministry
Fundamentally as noted by the Council on Social Work Education in its Advance Social Work Practice in Trauma guidelines and standards: “Trauma results from adverse life experiences that overwhelm an individual’s capacity to cope and to adapt positively to whatever threat he or she faces…Trauma exposure’s lasting impact represents a combination of the event and the subjective thoughts and feelings it engenders. An event becomes traumatic when its adverse effect produces feelings of helplessness and lack of control, and thoughts that one’s survival may possibly be in danger”.
A diagnosis of and treatment plan for those who have been evaluated as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) remains controversial issues within the fields of mental health and primary care. We hear a great deal about PTSD in the popular media.
Not everyone who experiences violence in whatever form and to what degree will develop PTSD and/or have a traumatic reaction to having been exposed to violence. Those who do suffer from PTSD and their family know how debilitating a diagnosis of PTSD can be for them and the entire family.
A person who has had a traumatic experience can develop signs of PTSD. They can also show signs of depression, anger, a profound sense of vulnerability and loss of optimism and hope minus some of the other features normally associated with the cluster of symptoms suggesting a diagnosis of PTSD. I am seeing people who are functioning and fulfilling the activities of daily living but whose traumatic experience or episodes has left them feeling depressed, angry and with a chronic sense of vulnerability and lack of optimism about life. Sometimes they also express hopelessness.
These conditions impact their long-term health outcomes and their relationship with their family and others. Many of them who are suffering this way are active members of Black congregations. The negative impact of trauma can become multigenerational when not identified and dealt with early.
Members of the Black church community who, as a result of a traumatic encounter report that they found new resilience and grew in a positive way as a result of having gone through their negative experience. They found new strength for their journey as a result of a traumatic experience.
Their ability to do so was influenced by several factors among which were: their own personality structure, support from family and friends and their spiritual orientation to life. How an individual copes and sometimes thrives after a traumatic experience while other people do not fare as well remains a topic of exploration for the helping professions.
What Is a trauma informed ministry?
• A trauma informed ministry is one by which religious care providers representing all religious traditions have a basic understanding of the nature of trauma and how it may impact the overall quality of life of the person or persons who has been traumatized by a life event and the impact of that trauma on their relationships with other people and their understanding of God and spirituality.
• A trauma informed ministry seeks to sensitively use a basic understanding of trauma and reflect upon its implications for the various aspects of a religious ministry such as, preaching, bible study, prayer and other religious rituals and spiritual practices.
• A trauma informed ministry means that the religious care provider is aware of the impact of trauma upon persons depending upon where they are along the life-cycle, age, gender, social and marital status and sexual orientation.
• A trauma informed ministry brings to bear upon those suffering from trauma the wisdom, insights and resources of the religious faith and tradition of those who have been traumatized and utilize these cultural attributes for the sufferer’s benefit.
• A trauma informed ministry seeks to collaborate with other community members who can provide additional resources and to whom the religious helper can refer those needing assistance in coping with their traumatic experiences.
• A trauma informed ministry aims to increase the skills of coping with or reducing the stress that can otherwise lead the sufferer to feel that they can no longer manage or prevent their traumatic and post traumatic experience from destroying them.
It is important to remember that a trauma informed ministry understands how vulnerable people are who have been traumatized and that their sense of safety can be triggered by any number of things. Most importantly, those who have been traumatized need to be encourage and supported in being hopeful about their own recovery from having been traumatized.
One of the most significant impacts of suffering from trauma is the stigma associated with needing help to deal with the traumatic experience. The shame that some people feel as a result of having been traumatized prevents them from seeking help. Religious helpers can played a vital role in reducing this shame by reminder those suffering from trauma that there is no shame in getting help, that in fact doing so is a sign of their strengths.
Religion and spirituality and trauma
A traumatic experience for some religious people can cause them to profoundly question their understanding and practice of religion and their beliefs about God. Their traumatic experience can throw them into the whirlwinds of religious doubt, confusion and existential angst and anger.
On the other hand, the religious beliefs and spiritual orientation of some other people who have experienced a traumatic event can be for them a source of strength and guidance through the midnight of their trauma. We have to explore with those who are religious and have been traumatized how their religious beliefs are harmful or helpful to them as they cope with their trauma.
In traditional pastoral care and counseling often the values of confession, repentance, acceptance and forgiveness of self and others are aspects explored between the one suffering from trauma and the religious helper. People seeking such help are hoping to receive in some form what a pastoral care relationship aims to provide the sufferer, namely; healing, sustaining, guiding and reconciliation.
The overall liberation one seeks form their traumatic emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual traumatic consequences of the violence done to them or in some cases they may have perpetrated upon others, require a combination of individual support and congregation and community help along with whatever medical attention the sufferer may need.
Some people who suffer from a traumatic event may associate themselves with the people and their experiences found in their sacred stories and religious texts, traditions and histories. The story of Job and Ruth in the Hebrew Bible and the life of Christ in the New Testament are, for example, narratives that some people find helpful while experiencing trauma, losses and death. It is important to explore with the person suffering from trauma how they understand and identify with their religious faith in light of their traumatic experiences. Their trauma can affect their identity, their views and belief about God and their ideas of fairness and justice.
It is not uncommon for those who provide care for others to also suffer from burn-out, compassion fatigue or vicariously trauma. We can easily identify so closely with those with whom we work that their pain also becomes our pain in addition to whatever burdens we may be carrying ourselves.
Just as it is important for the person who has been traumatized to know and be reassured that their total sense of self need not be the trauma they have experienced and to try to imagine having a larger life beyond the trauma, care givers must also have a network of support and engage in activities outside of their caring for those victimized by trauma.
Some of the ways for caregivers to re-energize themselves include: proper diet, exercise, rest, some form of meditation, nurturing relationships outside of the work environment and pursuing interests other than those related to trauma and caring for others.
The Rev. Dr. Frederick J. Streets is a visiting professor at the University of Saint Joseph’s Department of Social Work and Latino Community Practice. He is also senior pastor of New Haven’s Dixwell Congregational United Church of Christ and a licensed clinical social worker.
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