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Creating a trauma-sensitive nation

By Dr Sharon Syriac

“Trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside you, as a result of what happens to you.” – Gabor Maté

Trauma? Death. Divorce. Domestic violence. These can cause despair.

Collective trauma? Crime. Natural disasters. The pandemic! These can result in loss.

The loss of a job, a loved one, a way of life.

Historical trauma? Slavery. Racism. Forced migration. These can affect the way a person thinks, feels, and acts.

Intergenerational trauma? This occurs when survivors of slavery, the Holocaust, sexual, alcohol or drug abuse pass pain down, through the generations – an inherited pain that will be perpetuated, until people have the opportunity to heal from it.

On Independence Day, August 31, 2023, Dr Royette Williams-James, certified trauma and resilient specialist, explored national or community trauma in her address on, ‘Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Nation, One Community at a Time.’

She highlighted to the audience of the Holy Faith Sisters and Associates that trauma is not only the event or situation that happened but also the experience of that happening, that is, the individual’s perception of what has happened, clarifying that trauma is subjective.

Therefore, trauma does not only include the threatening event that may affect one’s ability to function or the experience, that is, an individual’s perception of the event, but trauma affects individuals, differently.

What is trauma? Event. Experience. Effect.


Individual versus Collective trauma

Trauma may be an individual’s experience, but it may have a collective impact on persons in the nation. Dr Williams-James referenced both Andrea Bharatt’s death and Sean Luke’s traumatic experiences as individual experiences having a collective impact on our nation. This collective impact can leave citizens feeling fearful, anxious, or deeply distrustful of others.

The source of the trauma may influence how it is categorised. A ‘big-T’ or life-changing event, for example, floods or the pandemic versus a ‘small-t’ event, like the death of one’s spouse or pet or plans, can be equally devastating to individuals.


Four Fs to trauma

When faced with a traumatic event, the human body automatically prepares itself to respond, through ‘fight’, ‘flight’, ‘fawn’ (trying to appease a person) or ‘freeze’ (becoming so overwhelmed that the body disassociates from the event, by collapsing or fainting).

After adopting one of these four trauma responses, our body will return to normalcy after an hour or so, but for some individuals, the body gets stuck, sometimes at the age during which that trauma had been experienced and a dysfunctional approach to trauma is adopted thereafter.


Effects of trauma

Persons exposed to prolonged and ongoing trauma will endure an impact on their cognitive, mental, and physical health. Mental challenges like depression, anxiety, irritability, and withdrawal may arise, as well as physical effects such as fatigue, sleeping or eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse and indulging in risky behaviours, for example promiscuity, gambling, and alcoholism.

Ultimately, this can result in behavioural and learning disorders and diseases like Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, addictions, cardiovascular illnesses and even cancer.


Our response to trauma

As a society, we often downplay ‘small-t’ events. Let’s say a friend’s love affair ends, an experience that is deeply traumatic for him or her, leading to feelings of neglect, loneliness, and abandonment.

Yet as a people, we are often insensitive to our friend’s experience of trauma and heckle or tease our friend, giving ‘fatigue’ or throwing ‘picong’.

Sometimes, we are dismissive saying, “there are many fish in the sea!”. Such insensitivity to ‘small-t’ events, fail to recognise that when many such events occur simultaneously or over a short space of time in one’s life, catastrophe can be imminent.

Dr Williams-James argued that as a nation, there is a need to cultivate the sensitivity to examine different activities through the trauma lens. I then asked myself, “is it possible that the rise in school violence or its visibility amongst our girls can be linked to the trauma of the pandemic, when women and girls, quarantined at home and silenced into submission, were locked down with their perpetrators in households that were no longer safe?

“Did this collective trauma of the pandemic, intertwined with the intergenerational trauma passed on in families as cycles of abuse and further entwined with our nation’s historical trauma passed on through our ancestors, now culminate in the aggressive and violent responses in our girls?”

Adding to this complex mix, is the unresolved trauma among our citizens, contributing to many of the issues faced by our families and in our schools and society?


How to create a trauma-sensitive nation?

Perhaps it is time, having just celebrated the 61st anniversary of Trinidad and Tobago’s independence, to reflect on the causes, effects, and experience of trauma. It is time to take steps as individuals and communities to become a more trauma-sensitive nation, within the communities in which we live, within the organisations in which we work, and within the institutions which govern us.

By beginning with empathy, that is, putting ourselves into someone else’s shoes, several strategies can assist individuals to create a trauma sensitive nation such as:

  • gaining an understanding and acceptance of individual experiences and circumstances
  • create multiple ways to interact with individuals and families to engage in the nation-building process
  • set realistic expectations and do not ‘overpromise,’ so that people are not re-traumatised by disappointment or disillusionment
  • eliminate barriers to participation so that all activities are open, inclusive, accessible and unintimidating for all.

As a nation, we must always remember that trauma is not what happens to people, but it is what happens inside of people, as a result of what happens to them.