“What Happened to You?” – Unlocking the Clinical Language of Trauma-Informed Care

At first glance, “trauma-informed care” looks like any other phrase in a dictionary of clinical jargon. The phrase can feel inaccessible to someone who doesn’t have training in behavioral health, which can also create barriers to understanding what the term means. Luckily, understanding trauma-informed care doesn’t have to be difficult.

What is trauma-informed care?

At its core, trauma-informed care reframes how we care for others by asking “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?” When we shift our approach from the assumption that something must be wrong with a person to asking what occurred in their life that caused harm, it allows us to begin understanding all parts of a person.

Trauma-informed care tells us that people are more than their diagnoses. Each person has a history and experiences that inform who they are and where they are in life.

“Trauma-informed care exists not only in the face-to-face work we do, but is reflected in our physical spaces, clear and concise paperwork and avenues for collaboration and feedback,” said Lindsey Harcus, program manager for Emerson St. for Teens & Young Adults. “At Emerson St., this includes feedback boxes, surveys and the existence of Youth Council, which operates to give feedback on our spaces, systems and services. WellPower staff work hard every day to form relationships with the people we serve and within the community that are based on trust, accountability and continued growth.”

In other words, the goal of trauma-informed care is to make sure that we treat people as whole individuals who have complex pasts and lives, which influence who they are and how they move through the world.

Why is trauma-informed care important?

A major goal of trauma-informed care is to maximize safety, while avoiding re-traumatization. When people feel safe, have choices about their treatment, trust their providers and feel empowered, they can make positive strides on their well-being journeys.

When care providers, like WellPower, understand both how trauma happens and how it affects people, we can take steps to avoid situations that cause further harm to people in services.

“Trauma-informed care is woven into the fabric of all that we do at WellPower,” said Harcus. “We work from a stance of empowerment and collaboration with the people we serve and allow individuals in services to guide their own journey.”

For example, a young person receiving services at Emerson St. has the choice to join groups and classes, say no to treatment options they may not be ready for and choose when and how they show up for counseling sessions.

To an individual in services, this level of individual power in making choices about their care can create feelings of safety, empowerment and trust – all of which are critical in moving toward healing from trauma.

How does WellPower implement trauma-informed care?

Creating an environment centered around trauma-informed care takes work in all aspects of our organization, from clinical care, policies and procedures and human resources, to workforce development, building design and community engagement. 

WellPower staff recognize that being trauma-informed is central to upholding our mission of enriching lives and minds by focusing on strengths and well-being. For example, our permanent supportive housing building, Sanderson Apartments, was built using trauma-informed design. The space is open and airy with as few walls as possible and clear sight lines throughout, making residents feel secure and safe while appearing ‘barrier-free.’   Clinical staff use a trauma-informed approach to provide care for the people we serve. Through a combination of cultural considerations, meeting people where they are and addressing needs like housing, food and medication, we are able to make sure people served by WellPower are treated as whole individuals, not just their diagnosis.