Mind the Gap: Implementing a Trauma-Informed Approach
Over the past 21 years, Mary Beth Vogel-Ferguson, a research associate professor at the College of Social Work, has interviewed countless individuals receiving public benefits in order to understand those accessing these benefits—their attitudes, needs, barriers, and how the programs could be improved to better serve their needs. The plethora of life stories she heard over the years, reflecting both childhood and adult experiences of severe adversity and trauma, has made her passionate about finding ways to help people navigate that trauma—in particular, how service providers can better utilize a trauma-informed approach.
Although “trauma-informed care” is usually a term heard in relation to traditional talk therapy, Dr. Vogel-Ferguson explained the purpose of a “trauma-informed approach” is to infuse trauma-informed practices at the organizational and system levels, with the goal of avoiding re-traumatization of people.
“A trauma-informed approach is a lens through which you see everything—the design of buildings and office spaces, policies and procedures, internal and external communications, resource distribution, human resource management, and more.” She continued, “It is a different way of doing business that supports principles of safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support, collaboration and mutuality, empowerment, voice and choice, cultural, historical, and gender issues.” In general, these principles reflect good practice for everyone.
In early 2018, after years of delivering trauma awareness seminars to providers across Utah, Dr. Vogel-Ferguson and her team took a step back. At the time, Utah’s Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox was keen to find answers to the question, How can Utah become a trauma-informed state? So, Dr. Vogel-Ferguson and a team of researchers conducted a survey of community service providers. The survey asked all types of questions exploring what service providers statewide were doing to incorporate the trauma-informed approach into their work. Survey results showed that while there was much good work in the field, efforts were often siloed and lacked support on many levels. On the flip side, 76 percent indicated a desire to participate in efforts to improve trauma-informed approaches in their work. This feedback made it clear that more was needed.
In August 2019, Dr. Vogel-Ferguson presented a proposal to the Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission to establish a center where organizations and individuals could find evidence-based resources, support, and sector-specific information regarding resources available in Utah to support the trauma-informed approach. The proposal passed! Over the next six months, broad community partnerships developed and things were moving forward.
Then came COVID-19. All of a sudden, immediate needs took precedence—frontline staff were being overwhelmed with the challenge of trying to function in a pandemic and they needed resources now. Service providers working directly with victims of crime, children in danger, and those experiencing homelessness were overwhelmed trying to find safe ways to provide services, and were often unable to do so. Dr. Vogel-Ferguson and her colleagues responded by creating an online community page to quickly share as much as they could. It helped, but these cries for support also underscored how much a dedicated center was needed. “We realized that if a center were already in place, we would have been able to do this much more easily,” explained Dr. Vogel-Ferguson. “The need was clear because the gap was obvious.”
While Utah’s Department of Health had already recognized the level of trauma in Utah communities constituted a public health crisis, the onset of the pandemic expanded this understanding to a much broader population. “So many more people have realized that when you’re talking about trauma, you’re not just talking about people from vulnerable populations,” said Dr. Vogel-Ferguson. “You’re not just talking about abused children or those living in poverty; you’re not just talking about survivors of domestic violence. You’re talking about the widely shared experience of anxiety and fear of going out and engaging in the world. You’re talking about not being able to visit elderly parents or gather to celebrate weddings, birthdays, and graduations. COVID touches everyone.”
Dr. Vogel-Ferguson explained that young children are particularly vulnerable to the impact of high levels of chronic stress and anxiety. “That kind of stress really affects those little bodies,” she said. “As they grow up, these kids are more likely to experience physical and mental health issues. Data has shown the strong link between experiences of trauma in childhood and challenges in many areas of adult functioning.” She emphasized the need for everyone to be involved in changing these trajectories. “If—as adults, as service providers, as teachers—we’re not ready to help young people process that anxiety and support parents in managing these rough times, then we’re setting ourselves up for really bad outcomes; not just from the event itself, but from this trauma response that is going to continue to be with them.”
And these aren’t the only places people are facing trauma right now. Increasing tension around race relations, political stress, natural disasters … “We’re in the middle of a ‘trauma tsunami.’”
Dr. Vogel-Ferguson underscored that though the impact for some has been increased stress and discomfort rather than trauma, every person has been affected in a way that has not been experienced in our lifetimes. She hopes this opens the door for greater understanding of how trauma-informed approaches can help everyone.
stories in focus
The situations Dr. Vogel-Ferguson described were emotionally heavy. Imagine being a parent of young children, as well as a care provider for your own medically vulnerable parent. You’ve lost your job and the landlord is about to kick you out. Imagine if there is additional non-pandemic-related trauma happening. Initial data is already showing significant increases in domestic violence, substance use disorders, child maltreatment, and suicide attempts since the onset of the pandemic.
Imagine being a child who comes from a home that isn’t stable. Now your school is shut down or you’re worried about getting sick from exposure in the classroom. School doesn’t feel safe anymore. You didn’t have a sanctuary at home and now you don’t have a sanctuary at school.
Through all of this, Dr. Vogel-Ferguson has become even more committed to the creation of a center to support the trauma-informed approach in all sectors of society. “We need to keep this going—we can’t let the current crisis cause us to lose sight of our long-term goals,” she said. “Hard things are going to continue to happen to people and we need to be better prepared as a society to support our community in managing through difficult times. What better way to do that than to have people already trained and aware of the trauma responses so we can mitigate the impact? We can do this—together!”