For years we’ve known that when bad things happen to children, it can affect their health as adults. And the range of bad things is not limited to common stereotypes like abuse and neglect. Household dysfunction — and even historical trauma — can both play large roles in our well-being and longevity. Last Saturday (8-18-18), a group of Sitkans met to discuss and educate themselves on the emerging field of trauma-informed care. As KCAW’s Erin Slomski-Pritz reports, overcoming childhood trauma is closely tied to our power of resilience.
Note: Workshop facilitator, Lakota Harden, will lead a Decolonize training on September 29th. Find more information or register on upcoming workshops on trauma-informed care.
The Trauma Informed Community Conference was organized by the Sitka Resilience Project, a coalition of social service agencies, health care organizations, and individuals dedicated to enhancing local understanding of trauma and how to manage it. Jean Swanson, an outreach caseworker at Sitka Tribe of Alaska, had the initial vision for the conference.
“Because trauma really impacts a high number of people in our community, and I just felt it necessary for caregivers in our community to know about the information so that they can take care of our children,” Swanson said on a recent KCAW Morning Interview.
According to a 2013 study, about two-thirds of Sitkan adults reported experiencing at least one Adverse Childhood Experience, or ACE, which includes abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, and growing up with substance abuse or incarceration of a family member.
Patrick Sidmore, a planner with the Alaska Mental Health Board and the Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, led a workshop on ACEs in Alaska. He helped translate the ACEs data into health costs. Here’s Sidmore:
“Having an Adverse Childhood Experience or many Adverse Childhood Experiences doesn’t guarantee that those poor outcomes will occur, and that’s where the key to the hopefulness is. If you take self-regulation skills, being able to persevere in school, if you drop those skills between trauma and poor outcomes, you can actually change the poor outcomes, so it’s really quite a hopeful case.” — Patrick Sidmore
“We have calculated that $350 million dollars annually in Alaska Medicaid expenses would go away if we could eliminate all Adverse Childhood Experiences,” he told the conferenc.
Sidmore also discussed other benefits of reducing Adverse Childhood Experiences, including the reduction of smoking, heart disease, unemployment, and high school dropout rates. Sidmore acknowledged that, while it’s not realistic to eliminate all Adverse Childhood Experiences, it’s possible to help people adapt and thrive in spite of whatever trauma they may have experienced.
“Having an Adverse Childhood Experience or many Adverse Childhood Experiences doesn’t guarantee that those poor outcomes will occur,” he said. “And that’s where the key to the hopefulness is. If you take self-regulation skills, being able to persevere in school, if you drop those skills between trauma and poor outcomes, you can actually change the poor outcomes, so it’s really quite a hopeful case.”
Sidmore and other presenters made it clear that being a trauma informed community is not just about understanding trauma. It’s also about the solutions, about fostering resiliency.
The conference’s keynote speaker, Dr. Linda Chamberlain, an epidemiologist who specializes in childhood exposure to violence and brain development, shared information that many in the room intuitively knew: that participating in one’s culture can also mitigate and prevent the effects of trauma.
“Culture is a huge protective factor, revitalization of language — did you know that drumming is a big brain builder?” she asked the group. “Regrettably my culture did not understand this. Sometimes it takes a while for the science to catch up with culture.”
While culture may be a protective factor, the loss of it is also at the root of traumatic experiences for groups of people subjected to colonialism, poverty, and war. Historical trauma can manifest as psychological, emotional, and physical distress for generations — even for those who don’t directly experience the traumatic event itself. Kiks.adi culture bearer Louise Brady led a workshop on local colonization and historical trauma. She told an audience of about forty people that it’s very difficult to put historical trauma into words.
Brady recounted a time in the early 20th Century, when rangers on the newly-created Tongass National Forest burned tribal smokehouses that were now in trespass on government land.
She explained: “If I could liken that anything it would be like if someone came in here and said, ‘You know, you’ve got your bachelors, you’ve got your masters degrees, you have been trained, you have been doing this work for twenty years. Sorry. You can’t do that anymore.'”
According to Brady, it would be a mistake to relegate historical trauma to a bygone era. The effects are ongoing and deeply felt in this community. School district co-superintendent, Phil Burdick, noted that for non-Natives a crucial part of healing begins with apologizing.
“I can never take away the historical trauma,” he said. “But I can own what I do on a daily basis.”
Sitka’s Trauma Informed Community Conference concluded with a discussion on how to the turn the day’s conversations into community-wide action, and the importance of having strong relationships. A community’s resilience, according to these conference-goers, isa measure of how its members learn to see their history clearly and cultivate their collective strength.