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The Future of Healing: Shifting from trauma-informed care to healing centred engagement

Dr Shawn Ginwright is Associate Professor of Education and African American Studies at San Francisco State University. Dr Ginwright argues for a move from trauma-informed care to healing centred engagement. His paper, The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement, commences with a brief outline over the years of the approaches used in responding to issues facing young people, including:

  • The focus on strategies to build more resilience in young people, to increase capacity to adapt, navigate and bounce back from adverse and challenging life experiences;
  • Youth development was an important shift from viewing youth as problems to be solved to community assets who simply required supports and opportunities for healthy development;
  • More recently, trauma-informed care guides how we view the impact of severe harm on young people’s mental, physical and emotional health and encourages support and treatment to the whole person, rather than focusing on only treating individual symptoms or behaviours.

Dr Ginwright emphases the importance of trauma-informed care, particularly in the education/school setting where this approach might offer therapy or counselling in response to disruptive behaviour to support the restoration of a student’s well being rather than harsh discipline which may cause further harm.

However, an experience with a young person who advised “I am more than what happened to me, I’m not just my trauma”, led Dr Ginwright to consider the impact of the current deficit based approach and the concern that the language of trauma-informed care did not encompass the totality of the young person’s experience. While trauma-informed care correctly highlights the specific needs for individual young people who have been exposed to trauma, Dr Ginwright came to the conclusion that the term was incomplete.

In addition, trauma-informed care presumes that trauma is an individual experience, however it can often be a collective experience, which requires a different approach than for an individual experience, for example children from high violence neighbourhoods all display behavioural and psychological elements of trauma and children experiencing natural disasters all share a common experience.

Addressing the causes of trauma in individuals, families, schools and communities requires consideration of the context that caused harm – individually or collectively – in the first place.

Dr Ginwright argues that a trauma-informed approach could risk slipping into medical models of care focusing on the treatment of pathology (trauma) and its symptoms rather than strengthening wellbeing (which includes hope, happiness, imagination, aspirations, trust). He highlights that the reduction in pathology (anxiety, anger, fear, sadness, distrust) doesn’t constitute wellbeing, just as the absence of disease doesn’t constitute health.

Dr Ginwright sought an approach that enables practitioners to look at trauma with a fresh lens that promotes a holistic view of healing from traumatic experiences and environments. Healing-centred engagement is holistic, involving culture, spirituality, civic action and collective healing. Healing-centred engagement is a strength based and humanistic framework. This approach moves beyond “what happened to you” to “what’s right with you” and views those exposed to trauma as agents in the creation of their own wellbeing rather than victims of traumatic events.

Dr Ginwright outlines four key elements of healing-centred engagement:

Explicitly political, rather than clinical

Healing-centred engagement views trauma and wellbeing as a function of the environments where people live, work and play. Healing from trauma is found in an awareness and actions that address the conditions that created the trauma. This is based on research that suggests wellbeing is a function of the control and power young people have in their schools and communities.

Building an awareness of justice and inequality, combined with social action such as protests and community organising, for example, advocating for policies that address the causes of trauma such as lack of access to mental health services, contribute to a sense of purpose, power and control, hopefulness and optimism, which are necessary for healing and restoring overall wellbeing.

Culturally grounded and views healing as the restoration of identity

Healing-centred engagement uses culture as a way to ground young people of colour in a solid sense of meaning, self-perception and purpose. Culture offers a shared experience, community and sense of belonging. Healing is experienced collectively and is shaped by shared identity. This goes beyond viewing healing only from the lens of mental health and incorporates culturally grounded rituals and activities to restore wellbeing.

Asset driven and focuses on wellbeing we want, rather than symptoms we want to supress

Focuses on strategies that highlight possibilities for wellbeing, focusing on what we want to achieve rather than merely treating emotional and behavioural symptoms of trauma. This acknowledges that young people are much more than the worst thing that happened to them, and builds upon their experiences, knowledge, skills and curiosity as positive traits to be enhanced.

Supports adult providers with their own healing

Healing-centred engagement does not presume that adulthood is a final, trauma-free destination, and requires that we consider how to support adult providers in sustaining their own healing and wellbeing so they can be effective practitioners.

Dr Ginwright provided some tips to consider in building healing-centred engagement:

Start by building empathy

Take an emotional risk by being more vulnerable, honest and open with young people which strengthens emotional literacy and allows young people to discuss the complexity of their feelings. Fostering empathy also allows young people to feel safe sharing their experiences and emotions.

Encourage young people to dream and imagine

It is important to acknowledge the harm and injury, but to see beyond this and not be defined by it. The ability to dream and imagine is an important factor in fostering hopefulness and optimism which contribute to overall wellbeing. Daily survival and ongoing crisis management in young people’s lives can make it difficult for them to see beyond the present. By creating activities and opportunities that encourage young people to play, reimagine, design and envision their lives, these processes can strengthen future goal orientation.

Build critical reflection and take loving action

Consider the ways in which policies and practice and political decisions harm young people. Assist young people develop an analysis of what facilitated harm or trauma, as without a critical reflection of these issues young people can internalise and blame themselves.   Considering analytical and spiritual (power of culture, rituals and faith) responses to trauma helps with the ability to consistently act from a place of humility and love. Taking collective action in response to political decisions and practices that can exacerbate trauma, is an important feature in restoring holistic wellbeing.

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