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Mental Health & Wellness
Student Support

Changing the way we understand trauma and work with those dealing with trauma creates pathways for healing – and ramps up the impact we can have in our work

We are a society steeped in trauma, Dr. Shawn Ginwright explains. It’s all around us. We’ve been traumatized by Covid and are being traumatized by the events unfolding globally and nationally, such as the senseless brutal killing of George Floyd and many other men and women of color. This trauma is a shared experience for students and for adults, for people of color and everyone else as well. Yet as our society as a whole sits right next to trauma, Dr. Ginwright reminds us that it also sits right next to transformation. And he was invited to give one of our Month of Learning (MOL) sessions so he could help us get there.

Focused on what’s right

The subject of Dr. Ginwright’s powerful and timely MOL discussion is healing centered engagement (HCE): a new approach to healing and well-being. He coined the term “healing centered engagement” in 2018. This strength-based approach is the product of over 30 years of research and work with young people, schools, probation departments and social workers. And it is, without exaggeration, a game changer.

HCE builds on and moves beyond trauma-informed care, which Dr. Ginwright feels is a great start but doesn’t encompass the totality of traumatic experiences. Deficit-based, trauma-informed care focuses on the injury, the trauma, the harm that was done. In a trauma-informed care approach, trauma is viewed as an individual experience and puts the focus on treating the trauma, not the root causes. Trauma-informed care asks “What’s wrong with you?” or “What happened to you?” while healing centered engagement asks “What’s right with you?”

One of the personal stories Dr. Ginwright in his talk comes from one of his sessions with a group of young men who had undergone trauma. He began with a question he often began this type of session with: “What’s the worst thing that happened to you?” Though this did prompt conversation and helped them to get to know one another, one of the kids told him “I am more than the worst thing that has happened to me.” And so the group began instead to discuss their dreams and ambitions. From this experience came the idea for healing-centered engagement as an asset-focused perspective, approach, and strategy that addresses harm and works to restore well-being.

Changing the emphasis, changing the language

Healing-centered engagement advances a holistic view of healing and recognizes culture and identity as central features of well-being. The healing-centered approach acknowledges how trauma is experienced collectively, not just individually. The old perspective on trauma – in which Dr. Ginwright was trained – is a downstream one, focused on the mental and behavioral risks that result from a traumatic event, such as violence, substance abuse, depression, and/or compulsive activity. HCE, however, is interested in the upstream causes of on-going trauma – causes like racial bias, sexual orientation, immigrant status, or even certain neighborhoods/ living conditions – that may create greater exposure to trauma. Looking upstream gives us a broader understanding of the trauma experience.

Going further, Dr. Ginwright delves into the differences between PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the lesser known PTSE (persistent traumatic stress environment). While PTSD focuses on individuals and episodic trauma, PTSE recognizes that the root cause of trauma is in the environment, not the individual, and occurs as a result of systemic problems such as racism, ageism, homophobia, othering, and a myriad of other issues of social inequality.

The changes in wording between the acronyms is telling as well. Unlike PTSD, PTSE is not a “disorder” – as in something wrong in the individual. Instead, the individual focuses the treatment on trying to change the environment or social toxicities. As for the new P? There is nothing “post” about the stressful traumatic experiences that Dr. Ginwright is addressing. Until the environment is fixed, the trauma is and will be on-going.

Starting the healing process

As Dr. Ginwright explains, trauma is experienced on three levels, so healing happens on these same levels: the individual (finding one’s stories and daily microsteps of well-being), the interpersonal (fostering new bonds, new connections; exploring questions of what makes us human), and the institutional (establishing practices, values and policies that foster well-being).

He also identifies five healing-centered principles, grouped under the acronym CARMA:

Culture: Learning and having conversations about our respective identities

Agency: Supporting the ability to act and create, as well as change the root causes of trauma; providing opportunities for civic engagement

Relationships: Creating, sustaining and growing healthy connections with others based on aspects of our shared humanity, practicing empathy and fostering a culture of connectedness

Meaning: Identifying your own assets and connecting to your purpose, your contribution to the world

Aspirations: Focusing on possibilities, on the ability to dream; providing opportunities for dreaming and imagination; setting goals for the future you want

Care for the caregivers

Our job at InsideTrack is to provide support for students, often underserved populations of students experiencing the types of trauma Dr. Ginwright has been discussing. Beyond working to understand HCE and consciously weave its principles into our work and interactions with students, he recognizes that healers need centering as well, so we also need to integrate healing and well-being into our own workplace.

Dr. Ginwright has another suggestion as well: be more human. Being more human with one another, he asserts, helps us create pathways to possibility for the students we work with. That may be the main goal of healing-centered engagement: creating possibility. As he says, “One of the greatest casualties of oppression is the loss of the ability to dream beyond oppression.” HCE gives permission to dream to the people who need it most.

To learn more about InsideTrack and our commitment to holistic student coaching, check out our current Impact Report.

You can also learn more about Dr. Shawn Ginwright at his website.

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