The hashtag #MeToo has caught fire on social media, demonstrating the widespread impact of sexual assault, harassment and trauma. Thousands if not millions of women have responded with their own simple statement: “Me too.”
If people experience a negative emotional reaction to the #MeToo movement, it may be because they haven’t fully dealt with a traumatic event they’ve already experienced. From my professional perspective, it is a good thing that as these buried feelings now emerge, there is an opportunity for a healing process to begin. But therapists and treatment organizations need to be very careful when dealing with patients who have experienced trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
A trauma-informed approach to care should be taken in order to support healing. Even the most well-intentioned therapists may do harm if they are not trauma-informed. Treating an addiction that co-occurs with trauma and PTSD, for example, requires a trauma-informed treatment plan. Untreated or poorly treated trauma can put clients at risk for relapse until the trauma is addressed and treated properly.
Therapists should know that trauma-informed treatment requires specialized training across all levels of an organization, not just among the immediate therapist.
- Most people who have experienced trauma, especially long-term chronic abuse or neglect, don’t feel safe anywhere, so having staff create that safety for them is an important part of the healing process.
- Everyone in the organization, from the CEO to the line staff, should have training that allows them to interact with all clients in a supportive and trauma-informed manner. Staff are trained to not assume that our clients have never experienced trauma.
- Trauma changes the brain, and staff members need to know how to identify and react to behavior that’s associated with a trauma response. For example, therapists need to establish clear boundaries, as clients displaying a trauma response often struggle with appropriate boundaries. Trauma responses can also include quick and extreme changes in emotions, and trauma therapists should be competent to help a client get emotionally grounded again.
- Working with trauma patients can trigger an emotional counter-transference response in therapists. Being trauma-informed also means having enough emotional maturity to not react when our own buttons get pushed by the people we’re trying to help.
- Touch can be another difficult subject. There may be times when you feel a need to offer comfort by a simple touch. Always ask first before you touch a client. It’s a very simple thing, but it can make a huge difference in helping to create a safe space.
Many well-meaning therapists are drawn to working with clients who have experienced trauma. It is imperative that any therapist who works with clients who have a trauma history seek out specialized training to do the heavy lifting of this type of work. Trauma treatment requires a very specific skill set, so, in order to not do harm, and in order to actually help a person, you should seek out training both for specific therapies and also general training in understanding trauma and trauma reactions before you delve into working with a person in any deep way who has experienced trauma.
Michele Pole, PhD, is director of psychology at Caron Treatment Centers.