Trauma Informed Care: What it Means for Students

April 23, 2017
Cheryl Wooten is the Assistant Director of Trauma Recovery at Baylor. She holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from Wheaton College. She has been serving students at Baylor since September 2011.

Cheryl Wooten

Q: What does it mean for a professional to be trauma informed?

A: To provide trauma-informed care means you must suspend any sense of disbelief and assume the victim is telling the truth – even if the victim's account is disjointed and imprecise. Recounting traumatic incidents is incredibly difficult, and it may take time for details to become clear. Unless an individual is serving in a professional or legal capacity that requires them to judge the veracity of a student's claims of being victimized by sexual violence, it doesn't benefit a professional to spend mental or emotional energy trying to decide who is responsible for what occurred.

As human beings, we often feel a need to convince ourselves that the world is just, right, good and fair, that we get what we deserve, and we deserve what we get. Sociologists have named this phenomenon "The Just World Hypothesis." For most people, believing that we get what we deserve makes us feel safe and as if we have some control over the events of our lives. It takes a great deal of courage to admit that we live in a world that is often completely unjust and that in this world innocent young women and men really are targeted for sexual exploitation even though they have done nothing wrong. Decades of scientific research have shown that false reports of rape and sexual assault are very low, so it is extremely likely that the student who tells you that they have been sexually assaulted is telling you the truth.

Q: How does being trauma-informed help professionals understand how a victim responds to trauma?

A: I hear the term trauma-informed being referenced a great deal in society today and used by different groups in various ways. While I am always thankful that people are engaging in the conversation of how we can better understand and help people who have experienced traumatic events, I do feel a sense of caution about using a term implicit with multiple meanings. While I know that people are using the term in an attempt to be helpful, I think that perhaps we are best able to help when we step away from all the terms, labels and rhetoric and focus on the unique individual sitting in front of us.

In those singular moments when a student reaches out to a professional for help, the help they are looking for is often very different from what we imagine. At its most elemental level, it is the need to be heard, to know that another human being sees your suffering and cares that your worst nightmare just became a reality in your life.

From my point of view, the students who enter our offices are more than survivors, victims or any other label you feel is most appropriate. Those terms don't encompass their identity. They each have a name. They each have a story. They each have dreams and hopes for their future. When they tell you something happened, they may not even know how to really describe it or maybe they know, and it's just too painful to say it. No matter what they say or don't say, can you push away all the distractions and know that in that critical moment you have the momentous opportunity to have a profound impact in the life of a precious, beautiful and irreplaceable child of God?

If a student came to you for help after being severely injured by an out-of-control drunk driver, would you ask why they didn't see the oncoming car? Would you ask if they were talking on the phone or texting when they were hit? Or would you focus on listening to them and helping them access the medical care they need? It's not about what they were doing, it's about what was done to them and about what they need now. Let them know that you care that they were hurt and that you want to do what you can to help them heal.

Interpersonal violence is usually about power. Violence robs us of our power to make our own choices. One of the most healing things that you can do is to empower a student who is engaged in the trauma recovery process. People often have a reflex action to feel pity for someone who has been victimized, see them as weak and try to rescue them by taking control of the situation. See the person, not the victim. See their strength and resilience, hear their story, offer them options, respect their choices and then ask how you can help.    

Q: Tell me about the services you've set up to support victims of sexual violence in the Counseling Center. Are there new ones that have recently been added?

A: Resources that we have had for several years are:

  • A 24-hour crisis line where help is a phone call away (710-2467).
  • Quicker access to therapy for students who have experienced a sexual assault.
  • Individual therapy for students who have experienced traumatic events.
  • A trauma recovery group filled with stellar students who do a phenomenal job of supporting each other in the recovery process.

Resources we have recently added:

  • A confidential advocate who can be accessed with one phone call during office hours – no appointment necessary (710-4983).
  • A second trauma recovery group.
  • Additional clinicians to help meet the need for services.
  • Evening hours two days a week.
  • A second location with additional resources, including a private waiting area for students who have experienced interpersonal violence.
  • Additional training for our entire clinical staff on the best ways to provide treatment for students after a rape or sexual assault.
  • The addition of several clinicians who have specialized training and experience in working with students who have experienced traumatic events.

Q: What does it take for someone to seek help?

A: It takes courage beyond words and a desire to do more than just survive, but to truly heal, grow and thrive. To those who are reluctant I would say, "I can only imagine how hard it is to push yourself to come and talk to a stranger about something so painful that sometimes you can't even put it into words. I think that you are worth the effort. I think that your healing is worth the struggle. It's okay to be skeptical. It's okay to be anxious. It's okay to tell us if we are not doing what we need to do to help you. I just want you to know that we care and that we are waiting for you."

We have created a special video message on our website for students who have had unwanted sexual experiences – I think it captures the heart of our staff for these students. Jamie McGregor, worship and arts pastor at University Baptist Church in Waco, was generous enough to allow us to use one of his songs for the video. I loved the song when I first heard it because I felt like it expressed my hope for these students. When I talked to Jamie about it, I found out that this is a cause near to his heart as well.

Q: What do you think people reading this article are least informed about or would be surprised to know when it comes to sexual assault and the victims?

A: I think most people would be surprised to know that the victims are their spouse, their best friend, their sister, their daughter, their mother, their nephew – someone very close to them that they care about very much. I think they would be surprised to know that all the careless and divisive words they speak about sexual assault, blame and the stories in the media are like physical blows to that person they love.

Many sexual assault survivors never tell anyone about their experience, many more tell only a handful of people, and many try to keep their experience relegated to their past. So wherever you are, and whoever you're with, there is probably someone around you who has experienced interpersonal violence. Please don't wound them any further with your words. I think that the one thing we can all agree on is that we want the violence to stop.

I also think that people would be surprised to know that the most important thing they can do for a student close to them who has experienced a sexual assault is to truly listen. Don't ask questions. Don't try to problem-solve. Don't share your own experiences. Be quiet. Be still. Put everything else aside and listen as if someone's life depends on it, because sometimes it does.

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