Trauma can profoundly impact an individual's well-being, both in terms of physical and psychological health, especially for those in the legal system. Therefore, it is essential to understand the signs of trauma, its impact, and treatment program solutions.
In this blog post, we'll explore the impact of trauma and how criminal justice staff can find solutions that help their clients and communities heal.
Signs of Trauma
Trauma can take a heavy toll on mental health, particularly in criminal justice settings known as high-stress environments. Therefore, correctional staff must be provided an opportunity to learn and understand the signs of trauma, which can vary widely from person to person, to respond appropriately.
By increasing awareness and training correctional staff on trauma symptoms, correctional staff can better provide resources to those in need.
Emotional and Cognitive Signs of Trauma
Some common emotional and cognitive symptoms of trauma include:
- Feelings of guilt, shame, denial, or confusion
- Emotional numbness or detachment from loved ones
- Feelings of isolation, depression, or anxiety
- Increased irritability or anger
- Emotional dysregulation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mental fog
Physical and Behavioral Signs of Trauma
Some common physical and behavioral symptoms of trauma include:
- Lethargy or fatigue
- Racing heartbeat
- Nausea or other gastrointestinal discomforts
- Nightmares or insomnia
- Increased self-destructive behaviors or self-harm
- Difficulty sleeping or sudden exhaustion
- Using substances to self-soothe or self-medicate
- Chronic pain and tension
The Impact of Trauma
According to "Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services," responses "to trauma can vary greatly and are significantly influenced by [an] individual's sociocultural history." No matter a person’s background, trauma can significantly impact one's mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
Here are four categories of impact commonly faced by survivors of trauma.
Emotional Impact & Self-Blame
Those who've experienced trauma may struggle with trust issues and general functioning in many aspects of life. In addition, they may be prone to episodes of intense, unwanted emotions.
For many, the intense emotions following a traumatic experience are too overwhelming to bear, leading to emotional numbing. While numbing one's emotions may serve as a coping mechanism to protect against negative or unsafe feelings, it can significantly impact a person's ability to feel other emotions they want to experience.
The emotional challenges that arise after a traumatic experience can also foster deep-rooted self-blame and doubt. When blame and doubt take hold, it can detach a person from what they've gone through, leading to minimization of the event, wondering if it happened at all, or telling oneself that they're "crazy" for feeling how they do.
Not feeling one's emotions distances one from the reality of what they're going through, which can perpetuate adverse symptoms and derail healing.
Mental & Executive Function Impact
Executive functioning is the cognitive ability to have self-control, stay focused, make plans, remember directions, and multitask. But when one experiences trauma, this level of functioning can completely shut down or be thrown off balance.
While a person's executive functioning shutting down in the face of trauma can be a protective factor, it can also linger long after the traumatic event ends, leading to adverse outcomes. When this mental response persists, it can lead to challenges with regulating emotions, managing behaviors, following through on plans, exploring creative ideas, and more.
Self-Destructive & Self-Harming Behaviors
Frequently, intense emotions after surviving trauma can increase destructive behaviors such as substance misuse, unsafe sexual practices, and interpersonal conflicts. Trauma can also cause impaired functioning in the workplace due to difficulty concentrating or focusing, frequent absenteeism, and potential burnout.
The effects of trauma can be devastating both personally and professionally. It can leave people feeling ashamed, overwhelmed, and hopeless.
Survival Mode, Hypervigilance & Fear of the Future
Our body's nervous system is hardwired to protect us from danger. Our body goes into survival mode and releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol in the face of a perceived threat. These hormones increase our heart rate, elevate our blood pressure, and make us more alert.
This response is known as fight-flight-freeze. While fight-flight-freeze is vital for protecting us in times of danger, it can also stay activated long after a traumatic event, leading to increased chronic stress and hypervigilance.
Hypervigilance can lead to excessive worry about other people's opinions and obsessing over social interactions long after they end. This worry may also pair with a fear of the future or a sense of impending doom.
4 Treatment Program Solutions for Healing Within the Criminal Justice System
The potentially life-altering impacts of trauma make it an absolute priority for treatment programs that promote positive mental health and safety for those within the criminal justice system.
Here are four treatment programs or solutions available to correctional staff and human services workers in supporting their communities.
#1 - Safe & Supportive Trauma Screening
When working with individuals who have experienced trauma, it’s crucial to ensure that criminal justice staff training includes training on a safe and supportive trauma screening process. Screening should be conducted in a safe, supportive environment that encourages open communication and eliminates potential triggers. It should also allow individuals to express themselves freely without judgment or stigmatization.
When conducting the screening, it is important to ensure that the individual feels respected and valued. For example, The Trauma History Questionnaire (THQ) is typically used as a self-administered tool. Still, the person assessing a client should be responsive and compassionate to the person answering the questions. If they're uneasy, starting a conversation can help build trust.
Asking questions such as, "Can you tell me what happened?", "How has this affected you?", "What are some of the difficulties you have faced?" can help build trust between the individual and staff member.
By providing a safe and supportive trauma screening, criminal justice staff can provide individuals with the necessary care and support to work through their trauma and heal.
#2 - Trauma-Informed Therapy
Trauma-informed therapy is an approach to counseling and recovery that addresses the impact of trauma on individuals. It’s based on the understanding that traumatic events can have long-term physical, psychological, and emotional effects on those who experience them. In addition, trauma-informed therapy seeks to build a therapeutic relationship that is respectful, supportive, and empowering.
This approach emphasizes safety and security, promotes client self-determination, and acknowledges the role of power dynamics in trauma. It also considers how trauma can interact with race, gender, sexuality, culture, and other social factors. Trauma-informed therapy asks, "what happened to you?" instead of "what is wrong with you?"
Organizations can create a more compassionate and effective work environment by taking a trauma-informed approach to criminal justice staff training. This type of intervention helps develop an understanding of the complexity of trauma, increases awareness of trauma-informed care practices, and ultimately improves the quality of services offered to clients.
#3 - Motivational Interviewing & Stages of Change
Motivational interviewing (MI) is an evidence-based approach that helps identify and resolve ambivalence about behavior change and can be an essential part of a trauma-informed care program. This method focuses on recognizing and responding to the patient's motivation for change and using open-ended questions and affirmations. The goal is to foster the client's strengths, helping them to move from ambivalence to action.
The Stages of Change model, developed by DiClemente and Prochaska, is often used in combination with MI to understand and address resistance to change. It helps the clinician understand what the client is going through when deciding to change and how to best interact with clients in each stage of the process aiding practitioners in providing the right kind of support and guidance at the right time.
The six stages of behavioral change are:
Criminal justice staff training in MI and the Stages of Change model is essential to ensure they can best support clients. With well-trained criminal justice staff, patients are more likely to make progress.
Additionally, MI is well-supported by the Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse and is eligible for Family First Prevention Services Act funding. Download this fact sheet on the 6 Stages of Behavioral Change & Strategies to Enhance the Change Process to learn more.
#4 - Cultural or Gender-Responsive Therapy
In addition to traditional therapeutic interventions, criminal justice staff training in cultural or gender-responsive interventions is an important component of trauma-informed care. Cultural or gender-responsive therapy involves understanding the needs of individuals through the lens of their culture or gender, as well as the social and economic systems they are embedded in.
For example, research shows that women of color may have unique experiences of trauma because of facing multiple layers of oppression. Therefore, utilizing culturally responsive therapy to address the impact of trauma on women of color is essential for promoting healing and successful reintegration into society.
Two gender-responsive interventions for women and girls are:
- Girls...Moving On™: A comprehensive intervention explicitly designed for at-risk girls aged 12-21. The program promotes motivation and provides resources and skill development. Click here for the Girls...Moving On™ fact sheet.
- Collaborative Case Work for Women (CCW-W™): An evidence-based case management model combining a gender-responsive mix of supports, services, and interventions to promote positive outcomes for justice-involved women. Click here to learn more about the CCW-W™ model.
Trauma-Informed Training for Correctional Staff
Trauma can have a severe impact on an individual's progress in recovery and must be taken into consideration when providing therapeutic services. Criminal justice staff training should include trauma-informed interventions and assessments to identify potential signs of trauma, make treatment and service referrals, and ensure individuals receive the best possible care.
Orbis Partners is uniquely equipped to provide the criminal justice and human services systems with the necessary trauma-informed care interventions and assessments to ensure the successful progress of those they serve.
We specialize in designing and implementing services for at-risk client groups and criminal justice staff. For more information, visit our resources by clicking here.