It’s taken a while for Trauma Informed Practice to become upfront and central in my work. I was uncomfortable with all this talk of trauma and Trauma Informed Practice. Claims that trauma is commonplace seemed unrealistic to me. The emphasis placed on the centrality of trauma as a cause of suffering felt disproportionate to the realities of here-and-now lived experience, a submerged anchor dragging down and drowning out the possibility of joy. The need to adjust our services to accommodate trauma was a sledgehammer to crack a nut. And yet, at the same time, I’ve long been critical of “mainstream psychology’s implicit and explicit support for an unjust and unsatisfying status quo” (Fox, Prilleltensky, & Austin, 2009, p. 18), such as the biomedical diagnosis of psychological distress which ends up ‘treating’ social inequalities as though they are individual failings. I have seen how the mental health system can fail at its best intentions and end up hindering not helping. I’ve worked hard to challenge this and to encourage thinking around the language we use to capture experiences and how we understand what it means to be human.
For too long, the dominant view of distress has been an individualising, granular approach, seeing it as within the person, something ‘wrong’ with them.
It is clear to me that individual distress is linked to social, cultural and political circumstances. This was my avenue in to trauma informed care and emotion focussed practice. The constellations of experiences of adversity, social deprivation and personal identity may be unique and personal but understanding the intersecting patterns of these can help explain and respond to distress in a suitably complex, intersectional manner. For too long, the dominant view of distress has been an individualising, granular approach, seeing it as within the person, something ‘wrong’ with them.
When the world is oppressive and not supportive of growth, it is not ‘broken’ or faulty to live in response to this oppression. It is insightful, not ‘non-compliant’, to argue for a richer understanding and to demand mental health support systems that embrace the complexity. As the saying goes, we may all be in the same storm but we’re not in the same boat. When a tree grows all twisted, we don’t blame the tree. If it fails to thrive, we understand it is a function of its environment. Oppression operates to conceal the connections between social context and psychological distress and powerfully locates the ‘problem’ within the person. The shift therefore, from ‘what’s wrong with you’ to ‘what’s happened to you’ is not only morally just, it’s also a pragmatic indicator of how to live. This is underlined even more so if we take a next step and ask further ‘what does your response say about the world’ and the consequent implications for collective action to change the world.
Crucial in facilitating action against oppression is safety, or at least the pursuit of safety and security. We also need to trust the people we think are our allies and collaborators, be able to see through concealing veils the actions of others, have a reliable sense of predictability where expectations roll out as we agreed they would. Our choices should be effective, not sham or a sop to make us acquiesce. We are connected to others, share a common humanity, not incomplete, imperfect or flawed as humans in need of fixing, curing or erased. In a world that is nurturing rather than oppressive, my experience, heritage and multi-layered identity are not just respected but are seen as a bank of strengths.
And yet, the way we are working with psychological distress too often is not working. A feeling isn’t a sickness and yet all too often the person’s emotional reactions need to be seen as a ‘mental health condition’ at best or ‘mental disorder’ in order for support to furnished. This system the person then enters into risks re-traumatising the person (for example, through blaming the person “what’s wrong with you?”, tranquilisation, control, humiliation, broken promises, judgement and dismissal). Being referred to by a label de-humanises the person and sometimes is so powerful that the person themselves will grasp at the label because it is the only way they feel understood and is a necessary key for accessing support.
An alternative is to see distress and struggle as a normal part of living and consequently as a bond with each other. Distress can be utterly overwhelming and intolerable of course, as well as relatively mild and fleeting. Either way, it is compassionate to take steps to alleviate the distress we suffer. Rather than propping up a system that re-traumatises, we can take a revolutionary step and give helpers time, space and resources to be compassionate, to uncover the stories people have, to act in ways that change the world.
Fox, D., Prilleltensky, I., & Austin, S. (Eds.). (2009). Critical psychology: An introduction (2nd ed.). Sage Publications Ltd.