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Becoming Trauma Informed during Covid-19

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Becoming Trauma Informed during Covid-19

Part 1: Our journey to becoming a trauma-informed organisation

Through focusing our work in four key areas – conflict in the community, care, education and the secure estate – our understanding of trauma and the impact of adverse childhood experience on young people has grown significantly over the last two years. Below is Part 1 of a two part series in which our Director for Delivery shares the journey we have been on as an organisation and the new challenges presented by Covid-19.

Perhaps it is fair to say that the third sector is leading the way in adapting services and support for society’s most vulnerable by taking into account the impact of past, and in some instances current, traumatic experiences on an individual’s ability to access and benefit from offers of help. Leap’s way of working has always been structured around a trauma informed and trauma responsive way of thinking.  However, alongside so many other charities as our knowledge and understanding in this area grows, we too are eager to improve our practice. Being trauma responsive is clearly not a destination but very much an ongoing journey. 

To assist us on our journey, we set up a team – a cross section of individuals representing a range of perspectives – who we knew would add value to our thinking and inform our plans. Our task was to systematically examine all aspects of our work:

  • the way we led, supported and communicated with our people
  • how our physical environment was arranged and structured and,
  • most importantly how our work was organised and delivered.

Essentially what we were looking for was knowledge and understanding – a way of bringing about a change in thinking which would become the very fibre and backbone of our organisation.  We called it becoming more trauma informed, but as our work progressed, we soon realised that we were embarking on a journey of change which would change us as an organisation as much as it did our service.

The change that the pandemic brought about in all our lives

One of the very last meetings I attended in our North London office was for the purpose of tackling our planning around this crucial topic of trauma.  We were striving to disentangle what we needed to ‘know or understand’ from how we wanted to ‘respond or act’ – a task which can seem quite tricky when applying this way of thinking to something that was already quite established.

I won’t even begin to try and describe those first few days and weeks soon after lockdown as so many others have already done, perhaps so much better than I would hope to for this purpose.  Suffice to say that the experience for me was one of trauma – a feeling of being overwhelmed and out of control, a sense of loss, immobility with a total lack of predictability with seemingly no immediate end in sight.  For many, these are key descriptors of a traumatic experience, alongside other feelings including of lack of safety, loss of connection and strange sequencing of days or time.

Reflection instantly became near impossible as senior managers, trainers and staff organised themselves around survival and adapting as quickly as we could in order that our response had meaning and was able to add value.  Ironically, our focus on trauma ceased, immediately!  It took some weeks before it would begin again.

Now, months into the pandemic, we have had time to regroup and refocus. Part II of the process has been to look in more detail at our evolving practice and the adaptations we have made in order to ensure we remain trauma-informed and responsive in a post-Covid world.

Part 2: What does it mean to be trauma-informed in a post Covid-19 society?

What risks does the pandemic pose for triggering trauma?

Months into this pandemic, it is becoming clearer and clearer that there are few ‘experts’.  The last time that the world dealt with a pandemic of this scale was decades ago, in an era very different to the world we occupy today. More and more we are learning of the hardships faced by many – the pandemic and the knock-on effects raise a whole host of issues for people, including the re-triggering of past trauma.  

Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk MD (Author of How the Body Keeps the Score) gives some useful guidance by recognising that the pandemic provides the perfect preconditions for trauma.  He challenges us to use our bodies to help deal with the effects and other ways to support ourselves and one another:

  • Organise our lives in as predictable a way as possible.
  • Focus on creating connection – staying in touch with loved ones.
  • Move our bodies to help create calm – build things, do yoga and breathe.
  • Find what enables us to feel safe – music, art, human touch or reaching out to helplines.
  • Activate ourselves to set up a sequence of time, meditate – noticing and paying attention to ourselves and others around us.

During the lockdown we have implemented these ideas across the organisation and online delivery. For example:

  • In our one-to-one sessions with young people, project workers have sent journals to help the young person capture key thoughts and reflections across the eight-week delivery sessions
  • For our young women’s programme, we have sent self-care introduction packs to aid learning and support information as they adjust to the easing of lockdown measures
  • All our online delivery has introduced reflective sessions whether in group sessions with foster carers and youth workers or in one-to-one sessions with young people
  • We have organised weekly online exercise, quizzes, games evenings and opportunities to learn a new skill for staff, trainers and project workers so that we remain connected while physically distancing

Ensuring Leap’s work is underpinned by Trauma Informed core principles

There are several scholarly reports on the guiding principles or core values of trauma informed approaches to care.  Almost all include the following,

  • Safety
  • Choice
  • Empowerment
  • Collaboration
  • Trustworthiness

At Leap, we adopted these values as central to our endeavours, asking ourselves the extent to which our practice and behaviours reflect our commitment to each of them. Similarly, there are four ‘Rs’ which are the key assumptions in a trauma informed approach – Realisation, Recognise, Respond and Resist/Re-traumatisation.  In developing our current 2020 – 2024 strategy we began to consider ways in which our activities might be better adapted in keeping with the four Rs.  Changes include:

  • Tools and resources for self-soothing
  • Changes to lighting and space to support feelings of safety
  • In relationships, asking the right questions and building individual profiles of need and support
  • Adapting models of choice for engagement in delivery

How we have responded as an organisation

Planning is in my bones – if a task is to be done, I simply cannot think without a plan securely in place to drive my progress. But how do you plan in a pandemic? Especially when there is no end in sight - who knows what will happen in six weeks, let alone six months!  How do you implement a trauma informed approach to working via Zoom or other digital platforms? I simply don’t have all of the answers. However, I do know that our adaptations and new ways of working in the current environment have brought us closer to operating within these core principles than any amount of planning would have been able to achieve.

It seems as though trusting in our humanity and responding with compassion, not only towards others, but very importantly towards ourselves, has brought us far closer to becoming a truly trauma informed organisation.  Of course, we’ve made plans and structured our activities, but we have also made time to listen and taken time out to care – to really show that we care.  This is not something that the senior management team have led or decided upon. It’s been almost an automatic collective response with project workers, trainers and staff all playing their part. 

So, the task ahead for the trauma informed team is to continue paying attention to what is already taking place within our organisation and to build from there. That is not to say that we are not still learning from other practitioners in the sector, as indeed we are. But somehow a new space has been created for reflection, choice, empowerment and trust; a space which brings new opportunities that were not apparent before that strange day in March when everything was suddenly very different.

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