Learning about Childhood Trauma Changed My Life

September 20, 2017

In 2005, I found myself sitting on the edge of the bed stunned and shocked by what I was seeing on TV about childhood trauma. I had just viewed a documentary about inner city children in Baltimore, Maryland, who had higher rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than soldiers coming back from war. I was deeply moved and it didn’t appear that tears alone would be sufficient to address this crisis. I had no clue that this documentary would forever change my life. Children who looked like me were terribly distraught and there I was, ill-equipped for this serious fight to protect them.

Twelve years later, I find myself serving children and their families at ChildSavers through our outpatient trauma-informed services. While I’ve obtained degrees and certificates since watching that documentary, I am still not satisfied. I have made it a quest to find specific ways to heal trauma symptoms for inner city children and their families.

Things I’ve learned about Trauma

PTSD can affect anyone; it impacts humans from all ages, races, and neighborhoods. It is not an inner city, urban, African American, poor, or childhood disorder. It affects the innocent and defenseless when they see or experience something that makes them feel unsafe.

There are countless studies (Dr. Caroline Leaf’s “Toxic Thoughts” and Dr. Bessel Vander Kolk’s “The Body Keeps) that show us that the loss of a sense of safety has negative effects on the structure of our brains, how our bodies operate, and on how we see ourselves and those around us.

Trauma can impact families in multiple ways. For instance, parents who have been exposed to traumatic events can re-experience trauma symptoms when their child approaches the age that the parent was exposed to trauma

We Can’t Erase Trauma

Mental health professionals aren’t sure how to erase negative memories of feeling unsafe or harmed. The technology from “Men in Black” where Will Smith’s character waves a silver-lighted tube to erase bad memories and replace them with good ones hasn’t been developed yet. Once that technology is developed, I can assure you that every psychologist, therapist, social worker, and mental health worker will personally invest in it to help everyone feel safe again.

In all seriousness, our field has learned how to teach people to cope and manage feelings, but it cannot take away negative memories. That particularly weighs heavy on the hearts of the professionals in my field.

What We Know About Trauma

Trauma treatment can be as complex as brain surgery, if we let it. I would estimate that there are hundreds of schools of thought regarding trauma-treatment. Some of these include Cognitive Behavioral, Play Therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Movement therapy and a few gadgets like tapping devices and neuro-feedback machines. All seek to help those who have experienced trauma. There are also countless experts like Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, Dr. Caroline Leaf, Dr. Allison Sampson Jackson, Dr. Bruce Perry, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk in the field of trauma. But trauma treatment doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Imagine what occurred before there was therapy. Now imagine before there was a specialty in children’s therapy. There were tight knit, well-formed communities. There were families who supported the protection, nurturing, and positive stimulation of children. These units of people were charged to guard children from harm. They were designed similar to the protective layers of an onion.

Imagine the child being the most central core of the onion and their parents being the next level of the layered protection. Other layers would be grandparents or siblings. Following these layers would be neighbors, family friends, and extended family. Schools, religious entities, or social organizations would be the final layer. Unfortunately, some of those layers have become significantly disconnected, harmful instead of protecting, and strained or stressed.

We know that trauma symptoms have been on the rise specifically for children the last 20 years. We can debate if this is because we are now tracking the numbers or if it has been there all along, undetected.  In Virginia, we have seen an increased need for children’s psychiatric units and even have units currently at full capacity.  Despite well-intended and exceptionally well-trained therapists and psychiatrists, the numbers don’t appear to be diminishing.

Addressing the Well

Childhood Trauma and pediatric expert, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris says it best, “If all the kids are getting sick from drinking from the same well, I can write prescriptions individually for antibiotics or I can address the well.”

When it comes to trauma, the “well” consists of a lack of trusted and reliable protective layers for children. The impact of trauma treatment hinges on our ability to engage in layers of support for families rather than just individual treatment for children.

Change needs to occur if we want to see the needle move in trauma treatment, genuinely build resilient families, and diminish the need for therapy for children. The future of impactful trauma treatment looks like a systems approach that both protects and nurtures our most vulnerable population – children. Empowering and fortifying families will be our key role. Our children are worthy benefactors of any conversations or interventions that allow them to be safe, protected, and cared for. I’d love for the future of trauma-informed care to move from a mental health conversation to community conversations with parents, nonprofits, government officials, and local citizens  who are working together to create a layered approach to resilience and trauma-prevention in their own community.

By Nicole Mason, Clinician

Nicole Mason is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Richmond native. She has worked in the mental health field for over eight years and finds community engagement very rewarding. Her passion is to support, resource, and encourage families through both trauma-informed therapy and community resourcing. Prior to ChildSavers, Nicole worked in school-based mental health for several school districts. She has supported nonprofit efforts to intervene with teen mothers, led parenting courses, and facilitated conversations around race and gun violence. Likewise, she recently led conversations with young professionals on the impact of trauma on families. She received her undergraduate in Public Relations from George Mason University and her master’s degree from Regent University.  Last year, Nicole was honored to attend the San Francisco Adverse Childhood Experiences Summit to continue her research on specific trauma-informed interventions for urban children of color.