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What is Trauma-Informed Care? How Has COVID-19 Impacted It?

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Trauma-informed care is a practice in healthcare that involves understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects of past experiences as they relate to present issues. Mellissa Withers, an associate professor of global health at the University of Southern California, states in Psychology Today that “Trauma-informed care means treating a whole person, taking into account past trauma and the resulting coping mechanisms when attempting to understand behaviors and treat the patient.”

Many health policies in America are adding trauma informed care as a point of focus, and although many other things qualify, the COVID-19 pandemic is as contagious with the trauma it caused as it is with a virus. The most obvious example of this trauma would be with individuals who lost loved ones to the disease, but the pandemic also caused many individuals to lose their income, which is extremely traumatic, especially for those supporting families, as well as trauma caused simply by the uncertainty of safety in daily activities.

Here is a closer look at a few ways trauma-informed care has been impacted by COVID-19, and vice versa.

In Schools

With new presidential administrations come new rules, and one of Joe Biden’s first executive orders was to reopen schools with social distancing, vaccinations, and other requirements. Even before the order, national bodies with interests in childhood well-being were encouraging the creation of a trauma-informed learning environment to help youngsters slowly adapt back to life after COVID-19, as adaptation to the contrary was overnight, causing mental harm and uncertainty for many children.

These environments would include open counseling sessions for students to share their experiences, as well as increased availability for one-on-one therapy to deal with those who experienced exceptional trauma due to COVID-19.

Personal Care

Almost everyone experienced some form of trauma during the pandemic, and even if it wasn’t to the level of feeling overwhelmed, getting over things can be easier with a few steps, the first of which is reflecting on your experience and admitting that it was a traumatic one. There is no shame in saying that COVID-19 has caused you some troubles.

Maintaining your morning routine is a good practice, even if you’ve lost a job or moved to remote work. The mental spark allows for a more optimistic view on the day, which allows for a more optimistic view on overcoming the sadness and doubt caused by COVID-19.

Professional Care

Just as disease management regarding the virus has to be handled by professionals, trauma caused by the effects of the virus should be as well. You can expect to be asked about the effects COVID-19 may have had on you both mentally and physically for quite some time, and you should be very honest. The effects of trauma can greatly affect how care is given, and that is trauma-informed care in a nutshell. Whether because of COVID-19 or something else traumatic, approaching your healthcare with the “what happened” mindset instead of a “what is wrong” mindset will lead to more accurate options for recovery.

We asked three experts about some of the further ways that COVID-19 has impacted trauma-informed care.

Hyojin Im, Ph.D, associate professor in the online master of social work program at Virginia Commonwealth University:

The current pandemic situation has created multiple life-upending challenges and crises: sudden loss of loved ones, financial struggles due to loss of job or lockdown measures, uncertainty about the future, social isolation, and interrupted services and untreated health problems, etc. Such experiences lead to overwhelming stress, insecurity, and impeded resources for coping. These pandemic-related effects have created new trauma for many people, and have heightened the effects of existing trauma for other people. Due to the magnitude of the impacts of traumatic events our society is going through, the pandemic seemingly has raised more awareness as well as concerns around our health, and urges us to place care and supports, either formal or informal, that are more sensitive to traumatic experiences.

Dr. Tonya C. Hansel, doctorate of social work program director at Tulane University:

For many, COVID-19 hits the markers of a prolonged traumatic experience: threat to life, serious illness, sense of hopelessness, etc.  COVID-19, experienced directly or indirectly, increases the need for trauma-informed care. However, the mental health workforce trained in trauma-informed care is just as susceptible and were in shortages even before COVID-19.

Dr. Charles Figley, founder of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University and a professor in its School of Social Work:

Because COVID-19 created worldwide pandemic conditions, such practices have been warranted since March of 2020, and this continues today. Trauma-informed mental healthcare offers opportunities to improve service users’ experiences, improve working environments for staff, increase job satisfaction, and reduce stress levels by improving the relationships between staff and patients through greater understanding, respect and trust. Such services emerged in response to growing research demonstrating that trauma is wide-spread and linked and correlated with mental health functioning, and is a costly public health issue.

The entire world has been affected by COVID-19 in some way, and the traumas of the last year may not always be apparent in the way they’ve affected your mental and physical health. Schools, parents, and government entities need to be approaching the reopening of “normal” life with a trauma-informed lens and approach. The last year’s social isolation, sudden disruption of routine, and tremendous loss has been traumatizing, and leaders and social workers should ensure that they are approaching communities and individuals with a trauma-informed perspective to ensure the most quality and holistic care.

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