By Autumn Diesburg
RISE AmeriCorps Macro Communications Member
The experience of unresolved trauma can affect all aspects of our lives, making understanding what trauma is and how we can respond to it key to our day-to-day quality of life. Still, the term is often misunderstood or misused, compounding confusion for people seeking to understand their own stress and pain. So, what does the word ‘trauma’ actually mean and how can we respond to its presence within our own lives and the lives of those we care about?
In recent months, increased exposure to media coverage of global, national, and local crises has left many RISE AmeriCorps members questioning how they can identify and respond to their own stress and trauma responses.
In adults, trauma is a result of a person’s coping ability being overwhelmed by life-threatening danger – either to someone important in their lives or to themselves, said Tony Raymer, Director of Brain Health at Easterseals Iowa. Children, however, who need adults to survive, may be traumatized when they lack adults who take care of their social, emotional, or physical needs. After experiencing traumatization, Raymer said, common trauma responses tend to fall under five umbrellas:
Whether people experience acute or chronic reactions to trauma depends on their “psychological resources,” and how they’re doing with regard to resilience, said William Brown, AllOne Health Programs Clinical & Senior Account Manager.
How people respond to traumatic events isn’t dependent on one factor, but many; it’s personal, just as healing is.
“I would suggest the pandemic was a global trauma that has affected everybody. Now, not everybody is having clinical symptoms, but there's been loss,” Brown said.
Amid the disappearance of built-in community connections such as weekly soccer tournaments and gatherings. Mu Paw, former EMBARC Crisis & Advocacy Navigator and RISE AmeriCorps alumna, sees the loss manifesting within the Burma refugee and immigrant community in increased substance abuse – particularly increased alcohol usage.
Seeking support remains difficult as the effects of collective and personal trauma continue to reverberate throughout the community.
In addition to the loss and stress of the pandemic, Paw notes that the enduring Burma civil war remains an ongoing stressor for refugee communities.
"The kids who are studying here, they know what mental health is and they are aware now of that," Paw said. "For the parents and elderly, I don’t think that is something that they are aware of."
On especially hard days, Paw finds it difficult not to take the challenges home after work.
"I try not to think too much. I tell myself, it's just for work. When you go home, just spend time with your family, your kids, then take the next morning [on]," Paw said. “Sometimes I feel like I need to see a counselor or therapy for myself after work.”
While a someone’s response to trauma depends on the person, Raymer said that there are still a number of things people can do to help reduce their stress and trauma responses:
In addition, other important protective factors that remain resource dependent, include access to healthy food (e.g. community gardens), health insurance, and health care providers (e.g. therapy).
People searching for mental health support should start by looking at local resources, Raymer said. Every community has someone who knows what resources are available within the area, from a church leader, to a school guidance counselor, a community center staff member, or a social worker.
Many people, though, still do not feel comfortable asking for help – but reaching out is courageous, Brown said.
“There's been a lot of changes that people need support in and just part of their lives that they're coming and asking for someone to walk with them through,” he said.
Although it can be difficult, there are things people can do to help them decide if they could benefit from seeking additional support.
When deciding whether to reach out for help, Brown said, people should reflect on whether their quality of life is being affected. Common signs include seeing close relationships or quality of work suffering, or attempting to use alcohol, food or drugs to control one’s mood.
RISE AmeriCorps members and their households have access to a variety of free resources through the Member Assistance Program (MAP), Brown said, including:
EMBARC Crisis & Advocacy Navigators themselves often refer client families to local providers who are skilled at working with clients and creating safe spaces, Paw said. However, the lack of shared linguistic, cultural, and experiential understanding between a provider and client can create barriers to trust, healing, and community outreach around mental health.
“I can't express everything the client said …Sometimes with interpreters, a client might not feel confident …to share their experience,” Paw said. “Some can be terrible. It's very traumatic.”
This gulf is exacerbated by cross-cultural stigma around brain health and mental healthcare; outreach is made especially difficult when, as Paw points out, there is no single word for mental health in languages such as Karen. A provider from the community who speaks the same language may help to start ongoing community discussions about mental health, Paw said.
“When you’re looking for that professional support … the most important thing is the quality of the relationship,” Raymer said. “Representation really matters … Probably 85% or more of our social workers in Iowa are white women, and it does make a difference having someone who looks like you, and has the experiences of you that you've had in coming to get your mental health support.”