Category Archives: trauma

PTSD: A New Theory? An Old Treatment


Researchers Liberzon and Abelson at the University of Michigan have published an essay articulating a new way of conceptualizing what is happening in the brains of those with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. While you can’t read their essay for free, you can read this good summary here.

What is their new theory? the neurobiological problem of PTSD is “disrupted context processing.” In simple terms, I fail to respond to the “stimulus” in its proper context when I am triggered by old experiences in a new setting. Even more simply, when I wake up on full alert in the middle of the night after smelling wood-smoke in my sleep I initially fail to recognize the context (my neighbor burns wood) and immediately think my house is on fire (as it once was). Thankfully, the alertness is less than it used to be and I don’t always get up to check on my house.

The authors suggest that 3 separate and current brain models are inadequate in their scope of understanding the brain’s activities in PTSD. From their perspective the “fear model” (Fight/flight learning), the “overactive threat detection model” and the “executive functioning model” work best when integrated into one unified theory with their new label. And, in true humble researcher fashion, they request help in testing this model to see if indeed it can carry the freight.

An Old But Essential Treatment?

It is good to have a better handle on what is happening in the brain when someone experiences PTSD. Neurobiological research is growing by leaps and bounds. It is hard, frankly, to keep up. And yet, let us not forget an old but essential part of PTSD treatment, the person of the therapist. Humans are designed to be in relationship. PTSD has a way of shattering connections with others and thus the treatment must reverse the disconnect. Being present and bearing witness to trauma will always be the first and primary intervention every therapist must learn. Our temptation is that we want to move beyond the bearing witness phase into change phases. While this is understandable (we want others to get better as fast as possible), we sometimes want this for our own reasons–to avoid the pain we experience in sitting with traumatic experiences of others.

Let us remember that we therapists (and pastors, friends, etc.) are the primary intervention when we are present with those who suffer, when we become a student of their suffering. All other treatment activities stem from this foundation. To use a different analogy, consider Dr. Diane Langberg’s meditation, “Translators for God” (Day 26 of In our Lives First). In this meditation she describes the experience of being translated in a seminar. The translator must fully understand both languages in order to accurately communicate the speaker’s words into the heart language of the hearers. Counselors are translators for God and for healing. And yet, if they do not deeply learn the heart language (pain and trauma experience) of the client, they will not be able to connect the client to healing and to the God who heals.

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Filed under christian counseling, counseling science, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, ptsd, trauma, Uncategorized

Is God eternally traumatized?


The first words of Alwyn Lau’s “Saved By Trauma” essay remind us that the work of Jesus Christ on the cross is the foundation and center point for all of Christianity.§ Without the cross, there is no Christian faith.

The Christian faith is centered around the historical trauma of the suffering, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus. Christian theological reflection starts from and eventually relates back to the work of Christ. Indeed, for some theologians, the resurrection points back to and affirms the cross. The apostle Paul’s declaration that the Christian pronunciation is essentially “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23) ontologically entrenches trauma, destabilization, and anxiety at the heart of kerygymatic [sic] proclamation. (p.273)

Sit with that last sentence a bit. Christianity is at its core or essence a faith wrapped up in trauma. Yes, there is an all-important resurrection, but a resurrection cannot happen without a traumatic story (false-blame, injustice, torture, abandonment, and death). If Christianity is ANYTHING, then it is a faith that takes seriously the impact of brokenness.

So then, Lau makes an important next point about what a Christian theology should provide:

Theology proffers a distinct vocabulary to talk about personal and interpersonal wounding and trauma; the Christian community approximates a traumatic community. (ibid)

Victims of trauma ought to find great comfort and help from Christian leaders and communities because they observe a community that really gets their experience, both by word and deed.

Are we that community?

Or, are we a bit more like Job’s friends? Consider Lau again,

 Job’s friends, in presenting all kinds of explanations for why Job suffered the tragedies he did, were attempting to obscure the trauma of the truth of evil in the world. Job’s disagreement–and God’s eventual vindication and endorsement of his views over against that of his friends–demonstrated resilience in the face of such tempting illusions of closure. Job refused to look away from the void in his pain. He refused to accept cheap solutions to the problem and “causes” of his suffering. (p. 274)

To become a safe community for victims of trauma, we must continue to highlight that God and trauma are put together (albeit willingly) for eternity in the abandonment and death of Jesus on the cross. In this God takes trauma (injustice, torture, and death) into his own being–no longer does it exist in creation.  Again in the words of Lau, we need a “theology of Holy Saturday” if we are going to show that “hope can be spoken of only within the context of injustice, negativity, and despair; the joy and the Lordship of Christ takes place in and through sickness, death, and sin.” (ibid)

“If God’s being cannot be comprehended without factoring in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ…” (p. 275) then consider this statement:

“If indeed God suffers in the cross of Jesus in reconciling the world to himself, then there must always be a cross in the experience of God as he deals with a world which exists over against him.” (quote of Paul Fiddes in Lau, p. 275)

God is defined by trauma. But he, unlike creation, is not weakened by this trauma. Rather, Lau encourages us to see that “the God self-revealed  and depicted in the Judeo-Christian tradition is a begin who, out of love for the created order, chose the trauma of death as a central facet of God’s self-definition.” (276) In an immeasurable act of love that had been present in God from eternity past, God chooses self-sacrifice to break the power of sin and death. And since this love is not temporal, then neither is God’s character ever without the knowledge and drive to reconcile a people to himself–even through trauma.

So what? What if we really understood God’s experience of trauma?

  1. The church would follow her head in the care of the most vulnerable even at the cost of her own comfort and safety. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.” (Matt 12:20, quote of Isaiah 42:3)
  2. The church would regularly make room for lament (individual and corporate) as acts of faithful worship. Like Thomas, we need to see the wounds that remain in the risen Christ.
  3. Hope would be illustrated in her ability to equally cry out about the “not yet” part of God’s present kingdom even while she looks for the “already” present redemption and healing. There is as much hope in Psalm 88 and Lamentation 3 as there is in Revelation 21.

 

§Lau, A. (2016). Saved by trauma: A psychoanalytical reading of the atonement. Dialog, 55, 273-281.

 

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, Gospel, trauma, Uncategorized

Live Periscope Session on Police Shootings, Race and Trauma


Tomorrow, at noon EDT time, I and two of my colleagues, Rev Desiree Guyton (an LPC) and Rev Dan Williams (Director of Urban programs here at BTS) will be discussing the ongoing problems of police shootings, trauma, race matters and how the church can be a positive response to a difficult situation. Here is the abstract we posted elsewhere:

In the wake of the multiple police shootings, our nation is again awakened to ongoing racial tension. Biblical Seminary recognizes the debate around these events within the Christian community and desire to address them. Biblical Seminary’s Urban and Counseling Department directors are coming together in live video stream forum to create an open Christian dialogue about the impact of police shootings on race relations, systemic racism and trauma, and discuss practical ways to respond. This live video will be delivered on Wednesday, September 28 at 12:00pm through Periscope App and Facebook. Participants will be able to post comments and questions during the discussion.

If you would like to watch live, download the Periscope app (a Twitter product) and search for my name, @philipgmonroe. Should last one hour. If you can’t find us live, I will post links to the video that will be available soon after we complete the session.

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Filed under Race, Racial Reconciliation, trauma, twitter, Uncategorized

Trauma-informed churches?


Yesterday I wrote a bit about trauma-informed organizations that seek to ensure that the ministries they provide neither harm recipients or staff members. That post focused on para-church organizations serving highly-traumatized populations and encouraged them to do some self-evaluation. But, today I’d like to add just a few additional thoughts on how churches might improve care for traumatized people in their pews.

Types of Trauma in the Church

Churches, by definition, are filled with broken people. That is just as God intended. And also as God intended, most find the church a safe place to heal and be restored–to God and to neighbor. But some find it a bit harder to feel safe in a church setting. In particular, those,

  • who have been harmed (spiritually, physically, emotionally) by church leaders
  • who have deep and hidden shame from interpersonal betrayals (sexual abuse, domestic abuse, forced perpetration, etc.)
  • who have experiences difficult to be understood by many (e.g., veterans)
  • who have secondary trauma (more invisible than most traumas) and who think they should be over it already

How can churches evaluate current policies and practices to ensure that both congregants and staff are cared well for and not unintentionally compounding trauma experiences? Consider the following list as a starting point for conversations among pastors, elders, staff, and lay leaders.

  1. Do we have a basic understanding of the nature, causes, and symptoms of trauma?
    • Search this site for many resources on this topic
    • Watch free videos here about making the church a safe place for victims
  2. Do we understand key features of systemic abuse that might infect our church
    • Use the link just above to explore the symptoms of narcissistic systems and leaders
    • Search this site for more resources as well
  3. Do we have a child abuse prevention plan? Preventing future abuse also provides some level of healing from past victims.
  4. Does our child abuse prevention plan also include ongoing training, care for staff, and a robust response plan when abuse allegations surface?
  5. Are we aware of subtle forms of spiritual abuse? How do we protect vulnerable populations?
    • Explore the dangers of “sin-leveling” (making victim responses on par with offender actions)
  6. Victims often develop poor coping mechanisms (e.g., addictions, resistance to authority, reactive moods, withdrawal, etc. Do we respond to all sins the same or is there recognition that traumatized victims need a different form a response?
  7. Do we have regular spaces for pastors and leaders to address secondary trauma (the result of being deeply involved in the ongoing traumas of congregants)?
    • Explore local resources outside the church so leadership does not need to be expert on every form of trauma and trauma response.

These are just a few questions to start with and will likely elicit many more as you go. By asking the questions you are taking serious the call by God to watch after the flock (including the sheep leading other sheep).

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, pastors and pastoring, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, trauma, Uncategorized

What is trauma-informed care? Filling a gap within care ministries


Yesterday I had the good pleasure of sitting with key leaders of organizations involved in trauma healing around the world. Much of our focus was on what these organizations were doing around the world (successes and challenges) and how would we function together in an alliance. You might expect we spent most of our time talking about projects and activities. You would be right.

However, I was given a few minutes in the afternoon to open up a dialogue about how we ensure that our organizations are adequately trauma-informed, for the sake of both our target populations as well as our own staff members.

What is trauma-informed care?

Last year I did this podcast for The Samaritan Women to introduce the topic of TIC. The idea, in short is that organizations serving traumatized individuals and communities would have a base understanding of trauma (what it is, how it impacts bodies, behaviors, spirits, relationships, etc.) and how to provide quality care that does not re-traumatize or hinder recovery. Of course, all human service and ministry agencies want to help. But, we know that not all that we do, even when well-intended, is helpful. Thus, there is a need to review policies and procedures to see how well we are serving others. If trauma victims tend to lose voice (power), relationships, and meaning, then do our organizational activities support the reversal of these losses?

For agencies seeking to self-evaluate around TIC categories (safety, trustworthy and transparent, peer-support, mutuality, empowerment/choice, and considering culture) start with assessment tools found at samhsa.gov or other TIC websites. The tools can help you consider gaps in training, policies, and interventions.

But don’t forget…

No organization will be adequately trauma-informed without caring also for staff members. It is tempting to put all the focus on how we care for our target population and completely forget about the staff who are doing the work of trauma-recovery. We can neglect their self-care, neglect the reality of secondary trauma. Most who are attracted to trauma healing (or as we said yesterday, those who get bit by the bug) are likely to neglect their  own emotional and physical health for the sake of helping others.

So, ask a few questions:

  1. Are your trauma healing specialists given voice for how to serve others, in building strategic plans?
  2. Are their ample opportunity for staff to voice concerns and complaints from staff policies to implementation? Can they evaluate their superiors in appropriate ways?
  3. What organic self-care opportunities are built into the organization?
  4. If a staff member begins to show signs of their own trauma, will they be cared for or will they be seen as weak and suspect? Is help only provided after the fact or as a prevention strategy?
  5. What opportunities for continuing education and mentoring exist?
  6. When was the last time you surveyed emotional, relational, spiritual safety within your organization?

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Filed under mental health, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, trauma, Uncategorized

Is there a best practice in international trauma recovery work?


Yesterday I presented with Marianne Millen at the 2016 Humanitarian Disaster Institute conference here in Wheaton, IL. We reviewed some of the lessons learned through our experiences partnering with Rwandan institutions like the Bible Society (BSR) and with local counselors and caregivers. Check out our presentation here if you want to see our slides.

In short, partnerships are the way forward. But partnerships are not merely so that “we” can help “them.” True partnerships share resources, knowledge, and skills. They enrich both parties. I can attest that I have learned much from my Rwandan friends as they from me. I am a better therapist (and maybe teacher) from what I have received.

Partnerships rarely form quickly. They take time, can be messy, are likely more expensive than other intervention strategies. But as the Rwandan proverb says, “If you want to fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” And yesterday during a conference plenary, Sheryl Haw (Micah Global) had this to say, “partnerships are the realization of being on God’s mission and not our own.”

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Filed under christian psychology, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Rwanda, trauma

4 Reasons I Promote Scripture-Based Trauma Healing


[Note: broken link fixed. If anyone is interested in taking this course with me this summer, see here.]

As a psychologist I have had a front row seat to observe the destruction that traumatic experiences have on individuals and families. And as a professor training future counselors I see the necessity of passing on best practices for treating those with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). New understandings of trauma’s impact on bodies, minds, souls, and relationships appear on the pages of our academic and clinical journals. As a result, I read daily about innovative attempts to hasten trauma recovery for individuals and even whole communities.

With a world filled with trauma, it is clear to me we need an army of psychologists and mental health practitioners. How else could we address problems faced by 60 million displaced peoples in the world at present? How else could we address the scourge of sexual abuse, where worldwide 1:4 women and 1:6 men have experienced sexual violation before they reach the age of 18?

So, given the needs I have just mentioned, why would I spend considerable time and effort to promote a bible-based trauma healing training program? Let me tell you four key reasons I think this program is essential to address the world-wide problem of trauma. [Note, this is NOT a paid advertisement.]

Trauma disrupts faith and identity. The church must be at the center of the response

While many practitioners recognize the physical and psychological symptoms of PTSD, fewer have noticed that trauma disrupts and disables faith and connection to faith practices. Just now the scientific community is beginning to track this problem and acknowledge the role faith plays in the recovery process. Some are brave enough to suggest that failing to utilize faith practices and communities in the recovery process is tantamount to unethical practice! But most mental health practitioners have had zero training and experience engaging faith questions as part of treatment. The field of psychology is waking up from more than 100 years of training practitioners to ignore, even reject, faith as essential to healthy personhood. If faith is essential to most people on the planet then any intervention must engage faith and spiritual practices if it is going to consider the whole person.

Dr. Diane Langberg recently reminded a world gathering of national Bible Society leaders that trauma needs in the world are far too large for any government to handle. The only “organization” in the world situated to respond to at both a micro and a macro level is the Church. But is the church prepared? We need the church willing to understand the nature of trauma and participate in supporting faith and Bible-based healing responses. These responses include practices the church has not always been known for: validating, supporting and comforting victims, speaking up about injustice, inviting individual and corporate lament, re-connecting oppressed people to God. We need the church to be a safe community for victims.

The Healing the Wounds of Trauma (HWT) program fills this void. It offers basic trauma education, illustrates how God responds to traumatized peoples and provides simple yet effective care responses average believers can enact without being professional caregivers.HWT_USA_2014

While I believe we psychologists with specialized skill sets are essential to trauma recovery, much of what we do can be done by every day individuals. I tell my students that most of counseling is not rocket-science. Being present, listening well, building trust, validating, asking good questions, and walking with someone in pain is largely what helps counselees get better. With a little training, the church can be at the forefront of the trauma healing.

But we need an army…of capable trainers who reproduce

There are approximately 2.2 Billion Christians in the world today. If we decided (and I am not suggesting this AT ALL!) to only serve traumatized Christians, we do not have enough capable practitioners to serve those in need. The ONLY way we would be able to serve this population is to train up capable trainers (wise, able to work well with others, understand group dynamics, know when to be quiet, etc.) who are then able to reproduce themselves and make even more trainers who subsequently serve ever increasing populations. This creates a cascade effect—1 trains another who each, in turn, trains others. Conservatively speaking, one training of 35 future trainers could reach up to 15,000 traumatized people in 3 training generations.

To maintain quality, the program must be able to be delivered and passed on in a consistent manner. The HWT program is designed not merely to educate participants regarding trauma symptoms and good care/healing practices but how to pass on such knowledge and skill to others. The facilitator (trainer) handbook provides a wealth of information to ensure that the quality does not erode as the information is passed on.

Experiential learning trumps lectures every time

In the West, we cherish academic lectures as the primary training mode. Lectures enable a speaker to give a large amount of information in a short period of time, with minimal interruption. A good lecture casts vision, identifies problems, and points to effective responses. But a lecture cannot produce skilled practitioners. Any academic mental health program worth attending will require practicums where head knowledge is put into repeated practice.

Consider this scenario. My father is capable of building a house. He sits me down and he spends hours gong over the steps to building an addition to my house. I listen, take notes, and even handle the tools that will be used. Am I prepared now to build the addition? No! If I am to build a proper addition, I will need to do so under his close supervision. In fact, most of the hours of lectures are not necessary at all. What will be more effective is his teaching me as we build together.

The HWT program is all about experiential learning. Participants learn as they experience trauma and trauma healing through story, dialogue, and practice. First applied to self and then in consideration of others. This is in stark contrast to most continuing education programs that amount to little more than monologues and passive audiences. While the monologue may give more information, it is highly unlikely that participants can in turn teach what they heard to others. The HWT program is not designed to deliver large amounts of new academic information. And yet, what participants get via experience and practice will be far more easily passed on when they become the teacher. There will be no army of trainers if we cannot quickly get experience and practice and pass on what we learn in simple everyday language.

Good training hinges on contextualization

If trauma is universal, then it might be thought easy to deliver trauma healing training across cultures. This is not so. If I prepare a lecture or training on trauma in my context (the megalopolis of the Northeastern seaboard of the United States) but deliver it on a different continent, my training may be of minimal value. The reason it is sure to fail is that what I had to offer didn’t fit the context; it didn’t speak to the heart of that audience. Good training must be contextualized so that participants immediately recognize trauma in their settings and that interventions make sense. Imagine if I deliver a talk on good conflict skills to a hierarchical society but emphasize the need to speak in “I” language (I need, I feel, I would like)? Such interventions will rightly be rejected as inappropriate. And if experience holds, whatever else I say will also be rejected.

The HWT program is founded on contextualization. Not only has it been translated into many different heart languages, the central stories and illustrations are also contextualized so that the participants can see themselves in the stories and interventions. At heart of each lesson, participants are asked about their own culture’s take on the particular problem. In dialogue, they compare responses to that of biblical passages highlighting trauma, grief, loss, and pastoral care. Nearly every major training point addresses context and encourages participants to develop creative interventions in keeping with key biblical and psychological foundations.

Is the HWT program all a traumatized person needs? No, it doesn’t assume this. Is the HWT program perfect? Of course not. I continue to make suggestions for improvement and the authors and developers are some of the most flexible I know, always looking for ways to improve the materials and training program. There are many other solid programs out there, but few programs I know have refined the content and delivery systems to be able to scale out across the globe. I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve the Mission: Trauma Healing team at the American Bible Society as co-chair of their advisory council and occasional trainer.

For a more visual exposure to this training, see this downloadable documentary.

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, counseling, Missional Church, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, ptsd, teaching counseling, trauma, Uncategorized

A moment at a refugee camp reminds us of the human tragedy around us


Just over the nearest mountain stands the Syrian border (approximately 6 miles across the valley). The Beqaa valley, known for its wine and farms displays its fertility even through the Spring chill rain. The mud clings to your shoes as you step carefully hoping that it doesn’t suck your shoe off your foot. You move down the dirt road between the refugee homes and are at a loss for words as what constitutes a home.  A “home” is a plastic covered wooden frame covered in plastic wrap and weighted down by tires and other heavy objects. This is a “good” or “5 star” camp in that the homes sit on poured concrete and have diesel powered heater/stoves. You step inside of Ramy’s (not his real name) home where he sits with his wife and a younger relative. Ramy is 24 and has been married for just just one month longer than his 2 year stay. He fled his home, walked over the mountain and arrived in Lebanon without legal status. What would make him flee his home and leave his parents behind? He had a choice to either take up a gun and fight in the civil war or try to get to another location to find a better life. While he doesn’t worry about being killed in battle, life is not easy for Ramy. Ramy cannot work. To pass the time he volunteers in the camp children’s activities. For this help, he is given some small token gifts from which he has to pay rent to the camp leader (who in turn pays the local farmer who has rented the plot as a camp. 
The camp is a good one, comparatively safe and secure, and relatively clean. Of course, this day, everything is wet and dark, lighted by one bare bulb and the glow of a TV. (Yes, some homes have a TV). With nothing to do at the moment, Ramy sits drinking hot sweet tea his wife has prepared. We drink with him.

Ramy worries about his parents and extended family. He can talk to them by phone every few months. He learns they have very little food. Unlike well-to-do migrants, Ramy hopes for peace and the right to return to his home city. Here, he worries about his wife, getting enough food, and whether he can spare some small change to help an elderly couple who can do nothing to provide for themselves. 

Ramy’s relative Mohommed, just 17, rarely speaks or makes any eye contact. He stares off and mindlessly smokes a cigarette. Though he too has no legal status or right to work, he has found a way to make a bit of money on building sites when he is allowed to stay at the construction site to sleep. It is clear he has seen and experienced much that is not good. 

Saying our good byes and offering our blessings, we leave the dank cushioned hut and move on to a small hut, better lighted and full of laughter. An aid worker is teaching English to children between 7 and 14 and a few mothers as well. The children practice identifying letters and writing both capital and lowercase English letters. Through giggles and “Hello, and how are you? My name is…” We learn that the woman reciting English has 9 living children and 2 dead ones. She smiles easily but pain is not far away. 

Soon, our time at the camp comes to a close. We file back down the road as clouds race by and the stench of human waste burns in our noses. We get on the bus, wave good byes and realize how welcomed we were. From there we go to a cheap restaurant and make our way to a hotel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Though we look out upon beauty, our hearts and minds are with the children and their parents preparing to sleep on cushions wrapped in a thin blanket and with no hope of it being any different tomorrow, next week, or ever. 

What can we do when our best options seem to be bearing feeble witness and trying to avoid the problems of tragedy tourism (a word used by our aid worker)? What can we know other than these few things:

  • this is not the way it is supposed to be 
  • few people outside this region given their pain a second thought (Think otherwise? Consider the “temporary” Palestinian camps swelling from 40,000 to 600,000 since 1948. These only come to mind today when a political leader is killed in a car bomb in one in Sidon)
  • while there are no simple answers and relief aid is not always the best solution, the human tragedy is still real. For this couple, that teen, those children, they suffer. 
  • And finally, and maybe most challenging, we know that God loves these refugees who do not yet know him. His heart breaks for them no less than it did for Ninevah. Our received blessings are not because we are more loved
  • We lament and ask again what can we do with what talents we have for the good of these brothers and sisters.

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Making the Church a Safe Place for victims of abuse


This Saturday I will be attending and presenting Cairn University’s Faith in Practice conference hosted by their counseling center and department (free but you need to register). I will be speaking about how we can make the church a safer place for adult victims of abuse and trauma. If you want to peak at the slides, click here: 2016 Cairn U Presentation.

The presentation that I will do will only be one hour so that limits what I can do. What I wish I could do is also talk much more about the systemic factors that make churches less safe places for vulnerable people. While we can all grow in better understanding the nature of trauma and how to walk alongside victims, our institutions can be systematically harmful, even when the individuals within the system have no intention to hurt others. Thus we need to keep examining the ways our systems operate that can be toxic to some. While this presentation doesn’t cover these questions, it can be good to ask,

  1. How do we handle recent or older allegations of mis-handling difficult cases?
  2. How do we handle allegations of child abuse (the victims, the family, the alleged perpetrator and family, and congregation)?
  3. Are we a safe place for people who are broken and not all tidied up?
  4. Does our system allow for ongoing lament? (Corporate and individual)?

 

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, church and culture, counseling skills, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, suffering, trauma

Counseling Advice From Lady Gaga?


Lady Gaga has a new song about the aftermath of sexual assault. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you likely have heard of Lady Gaga who is known for crazy getups and stunts. Known in my household as the lady who wore the meat dress, she sings these words (I’ve included just a few lines) in the song “Til it happens to you.”

You tell me it gets better, it gets better in time
You say I’ll pull myself together, pull it together, you’ll be fine
Tell me, what the hell do you know? What do you know?
Tell me how the hell could you know? How could you know?

Till it happens to you, you don’t know how it feels, how it feels
Till it happens to you, you won’t know, it won’t be real
(How could you know?)
No it won’t be real
(How could you know?)
Won’t know how I feel

Her message is clear: If you haven’t been raped or assaulted (or experienced any other sort of trauma) you can’t possibly know what it is like. And since you can’t know what it is like, stop giving superficial comfort and advice.

Is Lady Gaga right? Does she offer sound counseling advice?

Yes and no. Yes, we are far too willing to offer platitudes to people in pain and wonder why they get angry and hurt and avoid us altogether. Lady Gaga captures the sentiment of the doubly hurt–first by the initial trauma and second by foolish words. The ancient Greek Aeschylus aptly puts it this way

It is an easy thing for one whose foot is on the outside of calamity to give advice and to rebuke the sufferer

Our quips roll easily off the tongue, but they injure the already wounded. Before you speak to someone and offer your ideas, do your friend a favor and be quiet. Ask them again (and again) to tell you what they experienced (past or present tense). But I don’t think Gaga goes far enough. I would argue that EVEN IF you have experienced the same trauma as the person in front of you, stop thinking that you know what they are feeling and struggling with. You may, but you may not as well. Do not assume your experience is theirs. Listen. More than you think you need to. Assumptions of “getting it” communicate that their pain doesn’t really matter to anyone.

But also, Lady Gaga is wrong (and I get it, this is art not counseling skills training!). It is possible to help others even when you have not had their experience. As long as you approach your work with humility and the heart of a student, you can do much good. You bear witness to their experience through your reflections and observations. You can ask good questions and paint word pictures of trajectories of growth. Do not think that just because you did not have the trauma, you have nothing to offer. Offer yourself (more than your words). If you fail to offer yourself out of fear of not being adequate, you also harm by not giving the present of being understood.

But let Gaga’s anthem be a challenge to those of us, myself included, who speak before listening and who assume rather than learn. We won’t get it. But we can bear witness.

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Filed under Abuse, christian counseling, counseling, counseling skills, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, sexual abuse, sexual violence, trauma, Uncategorized