Violence-Induced Trauma: A Primer

Published in the Fall 2009 issue of SSA Magazine

A PERSON WHO HAS BEEN TRAUMATIZED may experience anxiety, terror, shock and/or an emotional numbness. In the month following the end of the event, he or she may have feelings of unreality, intrusive thoughts and images, and anxiety—these are signs of acute stress disorder (ASD). If these feeling persist, the diagnosis can be posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

With exposure to violence an all-too-common part of life for many young people, it is important that those who work with adolescents have a handle on how to help someone who has witnessed a violent act—particularly in distressed communities where crime and violence can occur more frequently. Yet teachers, afterschool personnel, guidance counselors and staff at institutions like a substance-abuse treatment center may have little or no training in trauma. "Even basic psychological first aid can really make a difference when talking with someone who has been exposed to traumatic events," says Malitta Engstrom, an assistant professor at SSA.

A modified version of the evidence-informed practice of Psychological First Aid that was created by researchers from the School of Public Health at UCLA a few years ago may be helpful in the wake of traumatic events. The model includes five components: listen, protect, connect—model and teach. First, listen

nonintrusively to what the person wants to say, following his or her lead. Second, take steps to help the person feel safe—from attending to his or her physical comfort to avoiding reliving the event by watching media coverage. Connect the person to supportive people. It helps to return to a predictable routine and positive activities with others.

"Teaching about and modeling coping in the face of trauma can be useful, too. People can get really afraid of how they're responding," Engstrom says. "So it can be helpful to provide information about how people tend to react to these kinds of events. Intense feelings are common, and understanding that can help."