by Patrick Hendry, Vice President of Peer Advocacy, Supports, & Services at Mental Health America
The feeling of safety is essential to good health, both physically and mentally. When our safety is threatened we experience stress, and as we now know that stress affects our overall health and wellness. When our safety is violated, psychologically, physically, or sexually, we experience trauma.
Not all of us experience trauma in the same ways. In my own case, my life was severely disrupted by my experience with violent crime and brutality. For years I lived with intrusive reoccurring thoughts of the event, anxiety, sleep deprivation, and a low tolerance for stress. I believe that ultimately my reactions to trauma were a triggering mechanism for other mental health problems. The remaining course of my life was changed by the events of one night. Fortunately, with the assistance of some very caring and empathetic peers I was able to recognize my strengths as a survivor and build a new and meaningful life.
Exactly how stress affects us depends on a lot of factors:
- Our personal characteristics, including those shaped by our histories;
- The nature of the trauma;
- The meaning of the trauma; and
- Sociocultural influences.
In recent years, through the results of the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, we have learned that childhood trauma frequently has lifelong effects. Recent studies show that childhood sexual trauma survivors are at high risk of re-traumatization based on four interrelated factors: hypersensitivity to threats to safety, exposure to triggers, post-traumatic stress reactions, and avoidant coping. When survivors of childhood trauma experience re-traumatization it can result in an even greater risk of future traumatization.
Peer support can play a highly important role that recognizes and respects survivor’s safety needs and interrupts the re-traumatization cycle, allowing the survivor the opportunity to begin the healing process and find treatment and/or support that strengthens it. The peer role is deeply rooted in the idea of not trying to “fix” people but rather to help them find their inner strength that allows them to grow as the person they wish to be.
Parker Palmer, an author, educator and activist, and the founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage and Renewal captured the essential role of the peer supporter when he wrote: “When you speak to me about your deepest question, you do not want to be fixed or saved; you want to be seen and heard, to have your truth acknowledged and honored. If your problem is soul deep, your soul alone knows what you need to do about it, and my presumptuous advice will only drive your soul back into the wood.”
According to SAMHSA, effective peer support for trauma survivors is rooted in: providing a sense of safety; trustworthiness and transparency; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment, voice and choice; and awareness of cultural, historical, and gender issues. In 2008, Shery Mead wrote that trauma-informed peer support practices include: building on shared experiences and mutual exchange, eliminating the power differential inherent in traditional mental health settings/clinical relationships, providing reciprocal receiving and giving of support, and fostering relationships that establish new ways of understanding the experience – not as clinical pathology, rather as understandable reactions to trauma.
As peers of trauma survivors, we must be secure in our own recovery and self-aware of our own “triggers”. By providing a safe environment for survivors to grow, and through our understanding of our own experiences we are able to provide a glimpse of the possibilities of healing and recovery.
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