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A path forward: Creighton social work student, professor create event around trauma, resilience

Traumatic experiences in childhood can reverberate far into a person’s adulthood, having lasting adverse effects on their physical, psychological and spiritual health.

For health care practitioners and social workers who regularly encounter people who have undergone this trauma, being keenly aware of the effects of this trauma is an important part of treating the whole individual. And trauma is also something some professionals sometimes are unwilling or unable to confront in their own lives.

To both ends, the Creighton University’s Social Work Program is hosting a Nov. 13 interprofessional event aimed largely at students in the health and social sciences, but also attracting professionals with Creighton community partners like Children’s Hospital, with the objective of helping to create a dialogue on not only trauma, but the path forward for patients, clients and practitioners. The workshop is titled “Resilience: Informing Our Practice to Protect Our Children.” An initial event, on Oct. 24, attracted 80 attendees.

“It’s not only helping vulnerable people, but it’s helping the people who help vulnerable people,” said Barbara Harris, PhD, director of the Creighton Social Work Program. “People providing the care need to understand their own vulnerabilities. The people on the front lines in health care, in social work, having them trained and in the conversation about health and wellbeing from the position of considering trauma need to have that full appreciation of a person’s capacity for handling trauma and for forging a path forward, having a plan.”

The workshop starts with participants registering their scores on an assessment called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) test. The assessment asks questions about childhood exposure to violence, addiction, physical and sexual abuse, neglect and, perhaps most often overlooked in conversations about trauma: persistent poverty.

“Knowing the impact of ACEs is just one more tool in the work to understand our work with vulnerable and marginalized populations,” Harris said.

From that point, participants began to think about the effects of trauma on themselves and on those with whom they come into daily contact.

“The research is out there to show that trauma sticks around and has an effect not only a person’s psychological health, but on their physical health,” said Nora Barry, a senior social work and health care administration and policy major who helped organize the Resilience events. “Social workers are equipped with those skills in how to model effective care for the traumatized. We want to extend that conversation on the emotional and psychological senses of trauma to include overall health. To be able to confront your own traumas — or lack of traumatic experiences — and think about them in meaningful ways is a great place to start.”

Trauma often manifests itself well after an initiating event. Harris said in looking at a person in poor health, or without a job or a home, there’s often something further back in their lives that can be identified as a root cause.

“There might be five intervening things that stretch back many, many years,” she said. “Someone who doesn’t have a job or a roof over their heads, that person might not be able to read. They might not be able to read because they lived in an abusive home or suffered neglect.”

Playing on the theme of resiliency also helped participants realize that trauma is not the end. Moving patients, clients and practitioners forward is the hoped-for upshot of considering and addressing traumatic experiences.

“That can be the difficult part,” Harris said. “Because you have to learn how to engage people. Every time you engage with someone, it’s an intervention. For so many of us, we want to fix people, fix things. But simply being patient, being present, can be a huge help to them.”

Barry envisioned the event while taking a course last spring in which she and her classmates watched the 2016 documentary film Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope, probing the work of Nadine Burke Harris, MD, a pediatrician who has extensively studied the correlation between adverse childhood experiences and poor health later in life.

Watching the film and reading deeper into the effects of trauma, Barry saw a place for a dialogue that would be especially at home in Creighton’s Jesuit pedagogy. She wanted to extend that conversation into the health sciences community, which so often finds itself caring for the vulnerable.

“It was something I saw that could benefit people working in and studying health care at Creighton,” Barry said. “Working with vulnerable people, we could all use that experience. Across the health care disciplines, we can all share that conversation.”

And from the perspective of collaborative care comes the impulse to put emphasis on the vulnerabilities of those doing the caring, Harris said.

“When practitioners aren’t compassionate toward themselves, it’s harder for them to be empathetic with those they care for,” she said.

Though Barry graduates this spring, there’s hope the project she’s launched will continue, given the steady interest. Both of this fall’s sessions filled up quickly.

“I’d like to see it keep going,” Barry said. “I think it’s an important demonstration of how social workers see the world and how that can help other practitioners remain mindful of how they’re working with vulnerable populations.”

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