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Using Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Treatment


Experiencing trauma can increase a person’s likelihood of developing behavioral health issues. Due to the effects of trauma, a person may develop anxiety, PTSD, depression, or substance abuse issues. Trauma can also impact the way a person views and interacts with behavioral health professionals. In some cases, aspects of behavioral health programs may remind patients of their traumatic episodes, and those patients may be unable to continue with treatment.

Trauma-informed care is a treatment approach that takes each patient’s possible history of trauma into account. In this article, we cover how trauma can impact behavioral health treatment. We share examples of trauma-informed care, and we also detail how behavioral health teams can implement trauma-informed care across the patient experience. Lastly, we detail how individuals can access trauma-informed care treatment programs.

Understanding the impact of trauma

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” In addition to the initial emotional response, trauma can impact people for years after the event occurred. The APA notes that long-term symptoms of trauma may include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Headaches and nausea
  • Unpredictable emotions
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships

The long-term impact of trauma depends largely on how the person experiences and processes the traumatic episode and his family support networks. Even though two people may be present for the same traumatic event, each person’s experience of that trauma will differ.

A key topic regarding the long-term impact of trauma is retraumatization. Years after a traumatic episode, a person may have an interaction the reminds them of his traumatic past. The person may then, in a sense, relive the traumatic experience and revisit painful emotions. Episodes of retraumatization can cause an individual to experience heightened anxiety and fear.

Examples of trauma-informed care in a clinical setting

When behavioral health treatment teams follow trauma-informed care practices, they attempt to avoid triggering retraumatization episodes with each patient. Examples of ways that behavioral health teams can implement trauma-informed care practices include:

  • Clearly explaining to a patient what will happen in each exam and why each exam is necessary. This practice helps build trust with each patient, and it is particularly important for invasive exams that require the patient to disrobe. Without proper explanation and justification, such an experience may trigger retraumatization with victims of sexual abuse.
  • Asking the patient how the team can make the patient’s experience more comfortable. Patients who have a history of trauma may have experienced relationships where there were large power-imbalances. The patient may have trouble with self-advocacy, and teams can help patients avoid retraumatization by initiating conversations on the patient’s well-being.

Another important aspect of trauma-informed care is that behavioral health teams should apply the approach to all patients. Clinicians should not ask patients about their past episodes of trauma. When a patient has to explain his history of trauma, the patient has to recall each episode, and that recall may cause the person to revisit painful memories and emotions. As mentioned, retraumatization episodes can cause a person to stop or end a much-needed treatment program.

Guiding principles of trauma-informed care

In addition to the above examples of trauma-informed care, behavioral health teams can adhere to a trauma-informed approach throughout the entire patient experience. Trauma-informed care is not a defined list of actions and responses. Instead, one needs to understand trauma-informed care as a treatment philosophy. Behavioral health teams can apply the trauma-informed care philosophy to a range of expected and unexpected scenarios.

To apply trauma-informed care to all aspects of the patient experience, behavioral health teams can use the five-guiding principles of trauma-informed care. The five guiding principles include:

  • Safety - Making a patient feel safe throughout his treatment experience is critical for reaching treatment goals. Patients who are victims of trauma have likely felt extremely unsafe during their traumatic episodes. When a patient feels both physically and emotionally safe, he can focus on treatment and recovery.
  • Choice - A common feature of trauma is the victim’s lack of choice. In some cases, a victim of trauma must endure an experience that they have no control over. Accordingly, behavioral care teams must make sure that patients know they have a choice regarding treatment. Teams must inform patients that they can leave a situation where they do not feel comfortable at any time.
  • Collaboration - In many situations, victims of trauma endure relationships with significant power differentials. They may continuously receive orders on what to do without the opportunity to provide input themselves. To avoid reminding patients of those experiences, care teams should involve patients in treatment planning and review discussions.
  • Trustworthiness - Trauma often involves a severe breakdown of trust. This experience can impact a person’s relationships with other people for the rest of his life, and this impact extends to professional relationships with healthcare providers. Behavioral health teams can build trust by defining and respecting each team member’s role at the onset of a treatment program.
  • Empowerment - Trauma can cause people to doubt their self-worth and doubt their ability to enact change in their environments. To address those feelings, behavioral health teams can help patients build on their existing strengths. By building on existing strengths, patients can overcome difficulties with self-advocacy and learn to see recovery as a real possibility.

When behavioral healthcare teams interact with patients, they can apply the above principles to guide their actions, even when the right response to a scenario may be unclear. Following the above principles can result in patients being less likely to experience retraumatization and more likely to achieve optimal treatment outcomes.

Accessing trauma-informed care at Vista del Mar Hospital

People who struggle with behavioral health and have a history of trauma should know that treatment is available. They are not alone, and trauma-informed care programs can provide the treatment they need in a way that is respectful of their past experiences.

At Vista del Mar Hospital in Ventura, CA, we offer a range of trauma-informed care programs for behavioral health. We offer inpatient behavioral health programs and outpatient programs. Our outpatient programs include partial hospitalization programs and intensive outpatient programs.

If you or a loved one struggles with behavioral health, contact our team to learn more about our treatment options. Our team can schedule a free mental health assessment, which helps our team learn more about the person’s behavioral health needs. You can call us any time at (805) 653-6434.