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Heal the Forest for the Tree


Trauma always happens within a context, and so does healing. To understand the impact of trauma means being acutely sensitive to the environment—to the conditions under which people grew up, to how they live today, and to the journeys they have taken along the way.”   (Andrea Blanch, Beth Filson, and Darby Penney National Center for Trauma Informed Care guidebook)

Creating an environment that exudes calm, safety, and compassion is a goal of trauma-informed systems. It is a profound paradigm shift in knowledge, perspective, attitudes and skills that continues to deepen and unfold over time.  I often explain to agencies and communities that to be trauma informed means not only adjusting programming for an individual or family, but to also transform the environment in which the program occurs and the environment in which the individual or family lives. I recently heard an analogy that simplifies this concept brilliantly.

I was listening to Don Coyhis of White Bison, Inc.  He was speaking about healing intergenerational trauma with Native American tribes.  He explained how important it is to work with the community not simply with individuals.  He used this illustration:

If you have a forest of trees and they are sick, you can remove one tree, give it what it needs- the attention, care, medicine, nutrients- to heal, and it will become healthy.  But, if you take that healthy tree and put it back into the forest of sick trees, what will happen?   Most likely it will become sick again.  So, if you truly want to heal the tree, you must also heal the forest in which it resides.

According to SAMHSA, to create a trauma informed approach we need to incorporate the 4 R’s: Realization about trauma and how it can affect people and groups; Recognizing the signs of trauma; having a system which can Respond to trauma; and Resisting re-traumatization. Many agencies and communities utilize the trauma informed approach principles to scrutinize and strengthen their interventions, treatments and programs.  But it cannot stop there.

To save the forest, we must bring trauma informed approach principles to the entire society, be it a workplace, school, agency, family, neighborhood or community.  We cannot continue to help people thrive to simply return them to an adverse environment.  To be trauma informed is to change the knowledge, perspective, attitudes and skills of the entire community- not just programs within the community.

Creating a trauma informed society will take tremendous time and energy to spread and apply knowledge, and break down barriers to build safety, trust, collaboration and empowerment with all people.  Assessing and adjusting policies, procedures and laws in order to bring about change takes understanding, willingness to do the work, and time to educate people in order to achieve successful transformation.  We have to be diligent, consistent and patient as communities become trauma informed.

In complex systems, there are always time delays between the decision or action and ongoing consequences of that decision.  We need to understand and see how actions and decisions from the past create the agenda of current problems and opportunities, and how our decisions and the way we work with people today create problems and opportunities tomorrow.” (Kathleen Allen)

The Self-Healing Communities Model is an evidence-based framework to bring about change driven by inclusive leadership that empowers all members of society to be a part of the solution. “The Self-Healing Communities Model (SHCM) builds the capacity of communities to intentionally generate new cultural norms and thereby improve health, safety and productivity for current and future generations. If we have any chance of turning things around, we need right-fit solutions that address the complexity of problems and will inspire emergent change in different community environments at a modest cost.” (Laura Porter, Kimberly Martin, Robert Anda)

Creating both trauma informed interventions and environments, fosters more sustainable change. When someone receives intense intervention to heal, they will continue to strengthen because the environments in which they live, learn or work are also strengthening.  Furthermore, once a state is trauma informed the workplaces, schools, agencies and communities will be functioning in a way that will prevent most adversities from manifesting into physical or mental disparities in the first place.

We need to invest not only in programs that heal, but also in long term, trauma informed approaches that create a healthy society.  We need to heal the forest for the tree.

Written by: Cheryl Step, MS, LPC, NCC, NCSC

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Thank you for such an insightful and powerful description of how it is all connected.  I appreciate you sharing these thoughts.  I find them inspiring and affirming.  I have read this on the day that I needed to.


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