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The Impact of Collective Trauma and How Behavioral Health Organizations Can Help

Trauma can happen to anyone at any time. It can even affect entire communities. Understanding how trauma impacts us both as individuals and as groups of individuals is crucial for behavioral health organizations. It’s only by better understanding this phenomenon, known as collective trauma, that we can begin to heal after large-scale traumatic events.

What is collective trauma?

Trauma occurs when an individual has an experience that shatters their sense of safety, whether that be emotional or physical safety (or both). Collective trauma occurs when this type of event happens to an entire community.

Leia Salzman, PhD, LCSW, from the Tulane University School of Social Work, describes collective trauma as “an event, or series of events that shatters the experience of safety for a group, or groups, of people.”

Collective trauma can stem from any number of incidents. But the events most commonly linked to community trauma are adverse weather events (such as hurricanes or tornados), mass shootings, and pandemic-level disease (such as the COVID-19 pandemic).

All these events can occur unexpectedly or with a short time to prepare. The abrupt nature of these traumatic events and the destruction of life and property that they cause work in tandem to shatter a community’s sense of safety.

The effects of collective trauma

Collective trauma has several recognizable signs that behavioral health professionals need to know how to identify. In this section, we’ll walk through how collective trauma manifests at both an individual and community level.

How collective trauma affects individuals

Collective trauma deeply impacts individuals on psychological, emotional, and even physical levels. The shared trauma of overwhelming adversity can lead individuals to struggle with symptoms like:

  • Fear and anxiety
  • Feelings of powerlessness
  • Flashbacks
  • Insomnia
  • Hypervigilance
  • Change in beliefs about life and the world around them

Without proper behavioral healthcare, harmful coping mechanisms such as substance abuse may emerge when one or more of these symptoms are present.

Individuals affected by collective trauma may also exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or other mental health disorders. The trauma can manifest in somatic complaints, exacerbating physical health conditions. Additionally, survivors may experience survivor guilt or shame, struggling with questions of why they survived while others did not.

How collective trauma affects communities

Collective trauma also impacts entire communities, leaving scars on their social fabric and collective memory. One of the most powerful examples of this is historical trauma. The impact of collective trauma can persist across generations. This intergenerational trauma manifests in several ways, but researchers have highlighted the following:

  • Heightened individual and collective fear
  • Identity crises, both among individuals and groups
  • Reacting to new threats with high levels of vigilance
  • Combining the pain of past generations with that of the current generation, even if circumstances are different.

In the aftermath of collective trauma, communities may experience a loss of cultural identity and meaning as traditions, symbols, and narratives are reshaped by the traumatic event. This loss can contribute to a sense of disorientation and alienation, hindering the community’s ability to navigate the recovery process effectively.

To make matters worse, collective trauma often exposes pre-existing disparities and injustices within communities, exacerbating inequalities and marginalizing already vulnerable groups. Individuals with pre-existing behavioral or mental health conditions and those living within marginalized communities are more likely to feel a sense of shared trauma.

For an example of how this plays out, we can reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic. In communities that had limited access to quality healthcare, often rural and low-income areas, infection and death rates were much higher. The pandemic pushed the limited resources of these communities to their limit, exposing healthcare inequalities within societies across the world.

How to heal from collective trauma

While the effects of collective trauma can be felt for generations, it is possible to heal from this type of shared trauma and end the cycle of grief. In this section, we’ll highlight how behavioral health organizations can begin this important work.

How individuals can start to heal

Healing from collective trauma often involves acknowledging and validating individual experiences within the broader context, fostering social support networks, and seeking professional help when needed. Building resilience through communal rituals, storytelling, and advocacy can facilitate individual recovery and contribute to the collective healing process.

Individual healing from collective trauma is a deeply personal journey that requires self-awareness, self-compassion, and resilience. Firstly, acknowledging and validating one’s experiences within the broader context of collective trauma is crucial. Recognizing the impact of the trauma on one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors can help individuals make sense of their reactions and begin the healing process. Support from trusted friends, family members, or mental health professionals is pivotal to this process. These interactions offer a safe space to process emotions and develop coping strategies to manage any symptoms that individuals experience because of collective trauma.

Researchers have also found that taking stock of what is important and  participating in the activities designated as important in the aftermath of a traumatic event can help facilitate the healing process. Whether this means volunteering, spending more time with loved ones, or something else, it can help individuals regain a sense of purpose and agency in the wake of trauma.

Ultimately, the road to trauma recovery is an ongoing process that requires patience, perseverance, and support from oneself and others. By honoring their experiences, seeking support, and nurturing resilience, individuals can embark on a journey of healing, growth, and transformation.

How communities can begin to recover

Healing from collective trauma is a complex and multifaceted process that requires concerted efforts at individual, interpersonal, and systemic levels.

Building supportive networks and social connections is crucial for collective healing. Behavioral health organizations can work with communities to organize support groups, peer counseling, and other psychological first-aid options to provide community members with the help they need. It’s important to use empathic and active listening skills within these spaces to foster deeper connections and strengthen interpersonal bonds. In this way, community members will have the opportunity to air their feelings of trauma, which is a crucial step in the healing process.

Behavioral health organizations should also work to address the systemic inequalities that contribute to the perpetuation of trauma. Working to implement policy changes, allocate resources for mental health services, and implement trauma-informed practices in various sectors such as education, healthcare, and criminal justice can have a profound impact. Through these efforts, you can begin to bridge the gap that wealth inequality, systemic racism, and healthcare deserts create in the behavioral health system.

5 Key Elements to Trauma-Informed Care

Trauma-informed care (TIC) is an organizational framework that involves recognizing, understanding, and responding to the effects of trauma. Learn how to implement the five key elements of TIC at your organization.

Learn more →

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