Picture this: An individual arrives at your organization who has experienced trauma related to intimate partner violence. The receptionist at the front desk does not acknowledge the individual when they first walk through the lobby door, and when the individual speaks up, the receptionist does not smile or give a kind greeting. The individual immediately feels on guard, and fearful of upsetting the receptionist. This first interaction with your organization has created a sense of insecurity and fear, rather than a sense of safety and trust.
This should give you an idea of the critical role nonclinical staff play in an organization that practices trauma-informed care. In order for an organization to truly become trauma-informed, it needs to involve every single person at that organization. Despite the heavy emphasis of being trauma-informed among clinical staff, it is equally important that nonclinical staff (receptionists, administrators, paraprofessionals, and others) are given a basic knowledge of trauma-informed care principles.
How can an organization support its nonclinical staff to learn about and practice trauma-informed care? The following are six recommendations to help you get started.
1. Learn how trauma affects persons served
Staff who have a basic understanding of how trauma affects an individual’s mind and body will be more likely to approach their work with a trauma-informed lens. Understanding concepts such as triggers can help nonclinical staff identify ways to prevent or reduce the likelihood of re-traumatizing a person served. Direct support professionals and peer supports can even learn how to facilitate grounding exercises and other calming techniques with their clients when they recognize signs of distress.
2. Pay attention to your language
What kind of language does your organization use to describe the behavior of persons served? Rather than naming a client a “no show,” acknowledge that there may be barriers to their being able to attend an appointment. Direct support staff may document an individual’s behaviors as “noncompliant” or “resistant,” when these are actually behaviors that reflect a trauma response. Pay attention to these terms and promote language that removes judgment from the individual’s behavior.
3. Practice a strengths-based approach to care
A trauma-informed model of care asks not “What is wrong with you?” but rather “What happened to you?” Withhold judgment about clients’ behaviors and instead focus on how the behavior may be an adaptation to deal with traumatic stress. Focus on the individual’s strengths, talents, and gifts. These strengths are ultimately part of the tools that will help clients begin to move toward recovery from traumatic stress.
4. Focus on building relationships
All work within health and human services is built on a foundation of trusting and therapeutic relationships. It is just as important that nonclinical staff at the organization foster healthy and respectful relationships with persons served as the clinical staff. Consider what helps versus what hurts a trusting relationship—being dismissive, impersonal, or critical toward the persons served will break down trust. Active listening, empathy, and patience will help a relationship thrive and make interactions with clients more successful.
5. Practice crisis de-escalation and prevention
While many organizations will focus on training related to crisis response, they may gloss over or exclude training focused on preventing a crisis from occurring in the first place. Understanding precursors to behaviors that can be destructive or maladaptive, and preventing these precursors from happening or from getting worse is a trauma-informed approach to care. Many of the traditional methods of crisis response can re-traumatize persons served (such as restraining or secluding an individual). Interventions such as these should be avoided and only used as a last resort to maintain the physical safety of the person served.
6. Remember to be person-centered
Ultimately, the person served is the expert of own their life. Person-centered practices keep the individual’s goals, choices, and self-determination at the core of their treatment, and person-centered plans are often carried out by nonclinical or paraprofessional staff. Being person-centered contributes to a client’s ability to use empowerment, voice, and choice – that is to say, their treatment is based on the person having shared decision-making and input into their own goal setting. This is a critical element of trauma-informed care.
The attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge of staff at an organization will shape how trauma-informed that organization is. Your nonclinical workforce can be trained in trauma-informed care in the same way your clinical staff can be trained – through continuing education, coaching, and supervision. With adequate training and support, nonclinical staff can have an enormous impact on persons served as they recover and find resilience beyond trauma.