Photo: Marlo Nash with her grandfather, Grandpa Johnny
In 1918, my grandfather lost both of his parents to the Spanish flu within a week of each other. He was seven when his mother died, had his 8th birthday the following week, then lost his father. Grandpa Johnny was separated from his three siblings and placed into the abusive home of a relative. At age 12, he escaped to live on the streets until he found his own placement with a couple as their house servant. The most he ever said about his experience was that he wasn’t smart enough to achieve his dream of becoming a doctor because he dropped out of school in the 8thgrade. My grandfather was smart enough to be a doctor, but the trauma of his stolen childhood shut that door.
The fear, anxiety, isolation, grief and economic insecurity from the COVID-19 pandemic are traumatic experiences that will have lifelong consequences for our physical, mental and emotional health. Research from past disasters shows that children are particularly negatively impacted by disaster, and for many like Grandpa Johnny, their life trajectory will be altered. Already, we are seeing increases in child maltreatment cases, calls to domestic violence and suicide help lines, and overwhelming demand for nutrition assistance as a result of the pandemic. It is critical that we take immediate action to support families during this time.
We know that directly supporting trauma-informed and responsive approaches and programs across all public systems that come in contact with children and families - like education, child welfare, health care, workforce, law enforcement, courts - can buffer children and families now, during the period of social isolation, and support healing and resilience after the physical threat of the pandemic is contained.
Congress has begun to combat the pandemic’s impact by passing the largest stimulus package since the Great Depression at over $2 trillion. Despite its magnitude, the legislation has no provision that supports or requires a trauma-informed approach for any system receiving federal funds. Though the package of laws largely ignores the silent mental health pandemic that is occurring alongside the COVID outbreak, there is a significant amount of flexible funding across various sectors that could be directed toward addressing social-emotional needs.
In some cases, the federal government specifically authorized certain funds to be spent, in part, on providing mental health supports, such as the $1 billion for the Community Services Block Grant, the $3 billion Governors’ Emergency Education Relief Fund, the $13.2 billion Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, the $250 million to Community Behavioral Health Clinics, $50 million for suicide prevention, and $100 million in SAMHSA Emergency Response Grants. In other cases, public systems that need to be trauma-informed, in light of the universality of this disaster, received large appropriations that are worth exploring for the possibility of funding trauma-informed delivery of services and programs. Examples include the $5 billion to Community Development Block Grant, and the $955 million to the Administration on Community Living for senior supports.
This large tranche of flexible federal funding is the reason for a clarion call to all trauma and resilience leaders who know that our country must immediately adopt a trauma-informed response to the pandemic. These funds will flow through state and local governments who will have discretion on how exactly they are spent in communities. This provides an opening for advocacy and education of policy makers - governors, mayors, boards of education, and others - around the need to address trauma. Trauma and resilience advocates can seize this opening to insist that resources are directed to ensuring all systems train every employee about trauma and the signs of trauma; to teach students, educators, caregivers and workers about how trauma is affecting them; and equip everyone with resilience techniques to ease their own dysregulation. This would be a start to a longer-term effort to equip all child and family serving systems to recognize and respond to trauma as part of daily life.
Preventing and responding early to the trauma caused by COVID-19 will help contain the spread of devastating and costly mental health issues that will affect our society today and for generations to come. The time to act is right now as federal funds are being quickly distributed to states.
The National Trauma Campaign, sponsored by the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice (CTIPP), has a collection of resources to help leaders effectively direct federal resources to trauma and resilience strategies. Visit CTIPP.org/nationaltraumacampaign to find “Resources for Becoming Trauma-Informed in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Follow this link for a detailed summary of the federal COVID laws from the Center for Community Resilience at George Washington University. And, join the National Trauma Campaign to advocate for federal resources dedicated to preventing and addressing trauma in future COVID legislation. There are Campaign tools to support advocacy and education efforts: COVID-19 Trauma Tsunami video (courtesy of Starr Commonwealth), infographic, a COVID-19 Congressional Action Toolkit to advocate for trauma provisions, and a COVID-19 Resource Kit to support state advocacy for federal funds. The National Trauma Campaign Core Team can provide additional assistance, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marlo Nash is the National Director of Partnerships and Policy for Saint Francis Ministries and a member of the National Trauma Campaign Core Team. Saint Francis is a national and international nonprofit organization with a mission to provide hope and healing to children and families and a vision to transform lives and systems in ways that others believe impossible.