Thursday, December 19, 2019

Why "What Happened to You?" Isn't Trauma-informed

I just finished up my first run of my Trauma-Informed Care: An Introduction for Libraries course.

I hope to run it again next year, but something came up that I felt I should clear up.

There are a lot of different training opportunities lately coming at trauma in the library at different angles.

Quite a few of them start attempting to shift thinking about trauma with the notion that trauma-informed care "seeks to shift the clinical perspective from 'what’s wrong with you' to 'what happened to you'". I can't pinpoint the origin of this quote, but it's been used by such respected organizations as SAMHSA.

This phrase, quite deliberately, does not appear in any of my training materials. That's because I don't believe it's true.

title text in black on a blue and green background

At its most basic, I can understand what this is trying to do: make people who have not experienced trauma that has reshaped their brains start to blame circumstance rather than the people themselves when they have a frustrating interaction. Apparently, wondering what happened to someone is supposed to build empathy so we can act more compassionately.

I humbly submit that thinking this way can have the opposite impact, and instead can inspire pity and possibly resentment. I also contend that asking this question isn't trauma-informed, and is potentially harmful. It also assumes that library staff do not have backgrounds in trauma, which is not universally true.

To demonstrate how this framing might be problematic: here's how a person whose brain has been rewired to expect stress might answer these questions, speaking from experience: