Tips & Tutorials

Beginner’s Guide: Working with Traumatized Populations

Working in human rights often means working with people who have been exposed to trauma. Things like wars, natural disasters, famines or other extreme events can do major harm to individuals and communities long after the immediate danger has passed. In addition, trauma can arise from localized and interpersonal events like rape, assault, abuse or intimate partner violence. For most human rights workers, it’s safe to assume that you will encounter individuals who have survived trauma regardless of your location or organizational mission.

But if you’re not a trained mental health worker, how should you handle these situations?

What does trauma look like?

It’s important to remember that psychological trauma is an individual experience. Survivors of the same event may react in completely different ways. Because of this, it’s important not to compare any one person’s trauma to another’s. The Sidran Institute for Traumatic Stress Education and Advocacy emphasizes that “trauma is defined by the experiences of the survivor.” Someone who was injured in a bombing may have no lingering trauma, but the person who witnessed the scene from a block away may continue to be triggered. The second person is not weak or wrong, they’re simply having their own experience.

As human rights workers, however, it’s important to note the difference between a natural, emotional response to stress and a potentially-harmful symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A traumatic experience is more likely to lead to PTSD when the individual can’t integrate or make sense of his or her emotional experience, or when the individual continues to feel that there is an impending physical or emotional threat. This can be expressed as a “flashback” when a person’s body is triggered into an emotional response by a sound, touch, smell, or other sensation that reminds them of the original event. Other signs and symptoms include depression, anxiety, memory lapses, trouble sleeping or eating, or suicidal thoughts. Additionally, behavior like aggression, defiance, defensiveness, or even drug and alcohol abuse may actually be a reaction to or attempt to cope with a traumatic experience.

What can you do about it?

Now that you’ve noticed the signs and symptoms of trauma, what should you do about it? If at all possible, your first step should be to bring your questions and concerns to a mental health professional in your organization or area. There are a variety of culturally specific approaches to treating trauma and even a seemingly friendly gesture, like asking someone to share their story, could potentially lead to a re-traumatizing flashback. Unless you have the expertise (or are working under the instructions of such a person) you may quickly get in over your head.

There are, however, plenty of ways for you to respect and care for the traumatized individuals you encounter in your human rights work. Here are several helpful practices that you can implement regardless of your position or mental health training.

Respect personal space

Physical touch can be a trigger for many individuals, especially those who have been traumatized by physical or sexual violence. Be careful not to touch someone if they’re not expecting it, especially if you’re not in their direct line of sight. This is especially important if you are working in a cultural context that is not your own. Be sure to defer to the local customs regarding bodily contact. Is a hug a standard greeting or something reserved for close friends and family members? What are the norms regarding physical touch between members of the opposite sex? If you’re not sure, you should take your cues from local residents or long-time aid workers in the region.

Establish clear and respectful rules and policies

Living with trauma means living with uncertainty. You can help by providing a stable, consistent, and safe environment. Whether you are offering direct service, coalition building, or doing advocacy work make sure people can depend on you to follow through on your commitments and clearly communicate your process. Trauma survivors often have lived through an experience that was senseless or outside of their control. If a new policy is impacting their daily lives take the time to explain what is happening and why. And if at all possible, incorporate the reasonable requests of community members. This allows everyone, including trauma survivors, the chance to have positive influence in the world around them.

Reframe deficits into strengths

Language like “victims of trauma” reinforces the traumatic event and erases the agency of the individual. Instead, try using terms like “trauma survivor” that focus on the person and their strengths. You may not have the power to cure someone’s depression, for example, but you can praise them for taking small, positive steps like eating a healthy meal. Even if the individual is making slow progress find a way to emphasize what they’re doing right.

Take care of yourself!

You can’t help others unless you’re also taking care of yourself. Terms like compassion stress, compassion fatigue, and vicarious traumatization have been used to describe how those who work with traumatized individuals are also at risk for emotional distress. A survey by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice found that that almost 40% of human rights workers had PTSD or significant symptoms and 15% reported depression. Sources of trauma can include hearing stories through interviews, visiting sites of violence, or witnessing violence or deprivation of basic needs. Human rights work can also itself be dangerous, with 20% of survey respondent reporting an incident of beating or detention in relation to their work.

The most important way to help trauma survivors is to stay safe and reach out for mental and emotional support when you need it. If you don’t have access to a mental health professional, build in time for accountability check-ins with some friends or co-workers. Take the time to listen to each other’s needs and struggles. If you get into this habit on a regular basis then you’ll have a built-in support network when things get hard.

About the author

Margaret Lebron

Margaret Lebron is an academic, performer, and social justice worker based in Chicago, IL. She has a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University where she studied theater groups that worked with military veterans. She has also worked in nonprofit theater and housing justice organizations across the United States.

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