Is Trauma-Informed Care Just Another Buzzword?

July 1, 2014
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

Last weekend I watched a movie that got me thinking about the concepts we teach at CPI.
The main character in Barbara is a doctor in 1980s East Germany who’s been banished to a rural hospital as punishment for applying for an exit visa. She’s followed by the authorities, reported on by her coworkers, and subject to strip searches anytime the authorities suspect she’s planning to run.
The police bring in a patient named Stella, who’s kicking and screaming. The hospital staff know Stella as a frequent flier who’s always faking sickness to get out of the nearby labor camp. New to the hospital and unaware of Stella’s history, Barbara thinks differently about the causes of Stella’s behavior. First, Barbara knows that trauma is likely a factor: Stella is frightened and trying to protect herself. Barbara orders the staff to remove Stella's restraints, and Stella begins to calm down. Second, Barbara suspects that there’s also a physical cause for Stella’s anxiety, and quickly and much to everyone’s surprise, Barbara diagnoses Stella with meningitis.
That's trauma-informed care, a very hot term these days, but a practice that goes far beyond the Merriam-Webster definition of buzzword: "an important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning."
Trauma-informed care is a relatively technical phrase, or at least a jargony one, but the concept it conveys is full of meaning. It could be a buzz term in the sense that it might sound pat or clichéd to anyone who hears it all the time. But when we hear stories about what it really is—whether they’re fictional tales like Barbara that resonate truth, or true stories about real events, they move us.
The story of Barbara and Stella is, in a way, an extreme example of trauma-informed care. Barbara is especially sensitive to the physical and emotional well-being of her patients because she knows what it's like to suffer. Fortunately, not all caregivers have been as deeply traumatized as Barbara. Unfortunately, many care receivers have been as traumatized as Stella.
No matter what our backgrounds are, many people carry some degree of trauma. And certainly most people are stressed. That's why the adage "do unto others as you would have done unto you" carries so much weight. It's also why the empathy component of Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training resonates with Certified Instructors and their participants. 
The media is full of horror stories about violence and people not getting the care they need. But so often care professionals do avert violence and offer appropriate support. So how do you make trauma-informed care more than a buzzword, but a practice to honor every day?

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