Friday, January 4, 2013

Insidious Trauma – Why Anti-Oppression and Social Justice Work are Critical for Trauma-Informed Programs


While many of us working in the field of domestic violence and sexual assault address the needs of survivors of interpersonal violence and recognize the impact of oppression on the lives of victims, we may, at times, fail to realize the overlapping impact of the insidious trauma that is experienced by many groups, including women, LGBT, disabled persons, and the elderly.  Psychologist Maria Root (in a number of articles) describes insidious trauma as the impact of living in societies where stigma, discrimination, and violence against women are still very much part of the fabric of their everyday lives.  We can expand this definition to include other marginalized populations and imagine the impact on a survivor with whom we may be working.

Those of us who work in ending violence against women are well versed in understanding oppression and social injustice in regards to women.  Let’s take that same construct and move on to recognize the impact that a person’s race and/or ethnic background has on their life experience and how it sets a person up for insidious trauma.  A person of color or a different ethnicity experiencing interpersonal violence is most likely also experiencing insidious trauma that occurs from the awareness that their race/ethnicity makes them a target just by their being present in the world.  This is increased when the person is isolated in the community, separated from family and cultural supports, and recognizes their own vulnerability.  Given the messages they may be receiving from the media regarding hate crimes or how they are being treated in public, they may be experiencing some traumatic effects due to insidious trauma. 

This also applies to people with different abilities or the elderly.  In a chapter in Laura S. Brown’s book Cultural Competence in Trauma Therapy – Beyond the Flashback, Dr. Brown tells the story of a young woman with a congenital disorder that had required increased amounts of assistance from others.  This young woman developed the belief that most people who were disabled wished they were dead.  She had developed this from hearing stories of people with disabilities who were seeking physician assistant suicide and finding that there was a pervasive attitude among the non-disabled population that people with disabilities were brave to continue living and felt it was understandable that someone would want to commit suicide.  It is easy to imagine that this attitude by mainstream society could affect a person’s image of his/her self as a valuable member of society. This woman was eventually able to find a movement that protests against this attitude and supports the dignity and affirms the lives of those livings with physical challenges. 

In addition, insidious trauma occurs within the LGBT community as they hear ministers, politicians, and social network trolls make comments about hate crimes or blaming them for natural or manmade disasters such as in Hurricane Sandy or the Sandy Hook school shooting. 

Laura Brown also states that in order to be culturally competent in providing trauma-informed services we should also consider how insidious trauma may be present even if the particular person has not identified having had an experience of overt trauma.  “Everyday racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and other forms of institutionalized oppression may seem so familiar to people as the background noise of their lives that they have no cognitive construct into which to place these encounters; they simply have the post trauma distress and dysfunction arising from doing battle every day against an army of small toxic agents.” Often the historical violence that has been done to a group of people such as Native Americans, Black Americans, Jews, and a large number of immigrant populations has an impact that lasts beyond the generation during which the greatest violation occurred. 

Understanding what we do about complex trauma’s impact on a survivor’s ability to trust and feel safe in the world, we now need to add the understanding that the person we are working with may also be experiencing the effects of insidious trauma.  A person may come into shelter or for other services with lack of trust and an increased sensitivity due to oppression and stigma she may have experienced or seen others of her particular group experiencing.  In the past I have heard people refer to the person as having a chip on her shoulder.  By understanding the effects of insidious trauma, we can now understand that this distrust, hypervigilance, and protective stance are a part of the effects of the trauma experienced by their particular group and should be addressed in the same way we do with other trauma survivors. 

Knowing this, it also calls us to action in regards to addressing oppression and social injustices in society.  We can do this on individual, agency, community, and national levels.  If we are to call ourselves “trauma-informed” we need to also be aware of and address those institutions, attitudes, laws, and beliefs that contribute to insidious trauma.

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