All over the world, people of faith gather to be devoted to one another, honor one another, instruct one another, be compassionate to one another, encourage one another and love one another. People of faith care about healing the brokenness that accompanies being a human. Faith organizations and their leaders have a long history of being a powerful force in bringing about social justice, and one of the most fundamental issues of the current era are the alarming rates of trauma and related health disparities, particularly in urban areas with high rates of poverty.
Research has shown that families living in urban poverty often encounter multiple traumas over many years. Further, they are less likely than families living in more affluent communities to have access to the resources that may facilitate the successful negotiation of their traumatic experiences. Research indicates that families living in urban poverty encounter multifaceted risks associated with the hardship of depleted resources, burdens of high stress and incivilities, and exposure to multiple traumas (Ackerman, et al., 1999; Repetti, Taylor, & Seeman, 2002; Kiser & Black, 2005). Because ethnic groups are overrepresented, there can be additional suffering secondary to racist attitudes and negative social perceptions of people living in poverty.
The following statistics indicate the prevalence of trauma and poverty in American cities (Emery and Laumann-Billings 1998; Groves, 2002; Sherman & Arloc, 2006; Edelson, 1999; NCCP, 2007; NCCP, 2008):
- 49% of American children in urban areas (9.7 million) live in low-income families.
- Families of color are disproportionally represented in impoverished urban neighborhoods.
- Black and Latino families with children are more than twice as likely as white families with children to experience economic hardships.
- Families constitute two-fifths of the U.S. homeless population, which increases the risk of trauma exposure and intense anxiety and uncertainty.
- 83% of inner city youth report experiencing one or more traumatic events.
- 1 out of 10 children under the age of six living in a major American city report witnessing a shooting or stabbing.
- 59% – 91% of children and youth in the community mental health system report trauma exposure.
- 60% – 90% of youth in juvenile justice have experienced traumas.
- Urban males experience higher levels of exposure to trauma, especially violence related incidents, while females are four times more likely to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following exposure to traumatic events.
Traumatic events in childhood, such as experiencing physical or sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence among adults at home, and living in a household where someone abuses alcohol or other drugs have obvious negative impacts on children while they are growing up. The impact from these events continues to affect individuals’ adult lives. Persons who experience adverse events during childhood are more likely to have poorer mental and physical health in adulthood compared to adults who do not experience traumatic events during childhood. Adverse Childhood Experiences have been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death. Trauma is the underlying factor in many of the issues that our communities are concerned about—substance abuse, violence, HIV/AIDS, mental illness, chronic diseases.
Most ministries seek to comfort those who are in distress, help those less fortune, and desire to alleviate suffering where they can. But, in doing so, perhaps they have not even considered those quietly suffering in their churches and communities due to the present difficulties resulting from past traumatic experiences. How might the church minister more effectively to these individuals? The answer is to become trauma informed.
Faith organizations and leaders are in a unique position to reach people affected by trauma and accompanying health and mental health consequences. Yet pastors, staff and members of faith-based groups and organizations indicate that they need additional knowledge and skills to be able to respond more effectively to individuals who have experienced trauma.
So, what is “trauma-informed ministry?”
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the concept of a trauma-informed approach would mean that “a program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed:
- Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
- Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
- Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
- Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.
SAMHSA also prescribes the following six key principles of a trauma-informed approach to service. They are:
- Trustworthiness and Transparency
- Peer support
- Collaboration and mutuality
- Empowerment, voice and choice
- Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues