‘Trauma-informed’: Symposium examines trauma, addictions and mental health

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By Nancy Poole

From the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health

The experience of trauma and violence is often central in the lives of women with substance use problems and mental health concerns. However, health and social service systems have not historically taken this reality into account.  Yet, increasingly, mental health and addictions service providers are finding ways to work with representatives of the anti-violence field to offer programming that integrates support on all three issues (trauma, mental ill health and problematic substance use).  “Seeking Safety” is one model of such integrated programming, developed by Dr. Lisa M. Najavits at Harvard Medical School, and is now applied in a range of settings in British Columbia.

Seeking Safety is group programming which integrates support on trauma-related, addictions and mental health issues, with a focus on establishing safety, restoring ideals and making connections to community-based services.

In November 2008, women’s and children’s health experts working with the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) and the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health (BCCEWH) planned a workshop on Trauma-Informed Addictions and Mental Health Practice, designed to bring together service providers interested in applying “trauma-informed” and trauma-specific approaches in their work with clients with substance use, mental health and related health and social concerns. Trauma-specific interventions focus directly on treating the effects of trauma and violence, whereas “trauma-informed” approaches take into account our knowledge of the extent and impact of trauma, and use that knowledge to ensure that the needs of women with histories of violence and trauma are better served in the provision of services and care.

At the workshop advocates and practitioners focused on approaches to delivering integrated trauma-specific programming based on the Seeking Safety model in settings such as the Victoria Women’s Sexual Assault Centre, the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, Haven Transition House and the John Howard Society. Presenters discussed trauma-informed care on the micro level of brief counselling, as well as the macro level of system-wide integration. Dr. Lori Haskell, a clinical psychologist in Toronto, delivered an inspiring keynote address that described the multidimensional effects of violence and abuse on women’s lives and key implications for provision of integrated violence and addictions treatment. For example, when service providers view “symptoms” of trauma (such as self harm) as “adaptations” to intolerable circumstances, they are able to emphasize this resiliency, and help survivors recognize their strengths and inner resources, over weakness and failure.

A network of health system planners, service providers and women’s health advocates will take forth the issues identified in the workshop to the addictions and mental health planners associated with BC Health Authorities, and will promote further training on these issues for service providers.

Nancy Poole is a Research Associate at the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health.

For more information, visit:

Seeking Safety website: www.seekingsafety.org

BC Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health website: www.bccewh.bc.ca