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.

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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:

What is wrong with you?
"I'm frustrated", "I'm confused", "I'm pissed" or similar.

What happened to you?
Nothing.
Plenty.
Too much or too little for the shape I'm in, depending on the day.
But to be honest? It's none of your damn business.

Now, I completely understand that these questions aren't supposed to be asked directly to the other person-- though, I'm unsure how much some trainings make that clear.

First of all, framing trauma-informed care through the lens of  "what happened to you?" plays into the lies the abled narrative tells us. Basically, it can frame neurodivergent people, like those with PTSD and other brain-related disabilities, as curious objects, "abnormal" medical oddities. It plays into that lie that people with disabilities need to be prepared to educate at all times and put their past traumatic experiences on front street in order to be believed.

Now: I GET IT, AGAIN, that these questions aren't intended to be asked of people, and are intended to inspire empathy; however, I assert that it can inspire pity, regardless. "Putting yourself in another person's shoes" when it comes to disability doesn't work to cultivate empathy; but it CAN cultivate fear, discomfort, and doubt.  That's what the research says.

I also KIND OF feel like framing trauma-informed care in this way works in opposition to a core foundational aspect of trauma-informed care, at least as I understand it: We cannot know who we encounter every day has experienced trauma. Trauma can affect anyone; and done right, trauma-informed care helps everyone.

So what can we ask instead?
I propose that Trauma-Informed Care, instead, compels us to ask:
"How can we succeed, together?"
It could look something like this:
-What do you have in place, in your environment and in interactions, that can keep a stress response from being activated?
-What supports are in place for staff and patrons who have backgrounds in trauma?
-What does a successful [interaction, recruitment/retention, display, environment, program, partnership] look like, and how can a trauma-informed approach help us get there?

I get that the question "what happened to you?" attempts to add the context of trauma; but I propose that "how can we succeed together?" can help us be mindful of all aspects that could influence an interaction/event (power/perceived power, "flipped lids", historical trauma, institutional oppression, bias, etc) in the context of the reality that we're currently experiencing.

As they say at Trauma-Informed Oregon: Every interaction has the opportunity to be retraumatizing or healing; we may as well try to be healing!

2 comments:

  1. I'm so sad your class didn't end up on my radar in time to sign up! Are you going to be teaching it again?

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  2. Hi there. It looks like I might be teaching it again in Fall 2020. Stay tuned!

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