For Mental Health Awareness Month this May, we sat down with Melissa Graves, MS, LMFT, to talk about trauma and mental health. Melissa is the Director of the CHRIS Training Institute. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with more than 16 years of experience serving children, adolescents, adults, and families in the mental health, child welfare, juvenile justice, and school systems .
Interviewer: At CHRIS 180, we specialize in trauma-informed care. So, start at the beginning. What is trauma, in layman’s terms?
MG: Trauma is something bad that happened – a single incident like a car accident, or an ongoing thing like being in a bad relationship – that overwhelms your ability to cope.
So, if normally you would talk to your girlfriends, talking to your girlfriends doesn’t work. If normally you would go exercise, go to happy hour with someone, whatever it is – your normal coping mechanisms aren’t enough to erase the thought and the feelings of that traumatic event. It’s something that overwhelms your ability to cope enough that it impacts your life. So you may not enjoy your friendships the way you used to, it might be difficult to concentrate at work, you may start questioning your belief in God because, “if there is a god, why would he let this happen?” It impacts you socially, spiritually, emotionally, physically.
And so much of trauma is how a person experiences it. If bad stuff happens, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was traumatic – we shouldn’t assume something was traumatizing. It’s very personal what is traumatic – betrayal can be traumatic, having someone you love and trust not be there for you, cheat on you, or for parents, not protect you. That can be trauma. Trauma doesn’t respect any class differences, either. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are – it affects all of us.
Interviewer: How is that functionally different than stress?
MG: There are different types of stress. Acute stress is in the moment – you might have some acute stress when you have to speak publicly or run from danger. That’s meant for a short amount of time.
But trauma is chronic stress. It’s long-lasting, so your body is staying in that place of “fight/flight/freeze”, your adrenaline keeps pumping, the stress hormone, cortisol, keeps going through your body… Your body isn’t made to have cortisol running through it continuously. It actually kills brain cells! That is why trauma is worse than just regular stress.
There is “I had a bad day” stress, and then there is “I keep remembering this sexual assault and no matter what I do I cannot forget it, and every time I hear a door slam or I smell this cologne, I’m right back there” stress. They’re different.
Interviewer: So if that is trauma, what is trauma-informed care?
MG: Trauma-informed care is good people skills… good people-care. It’s not just looking at the behavior. It’s assuming that people have been through bad stuff, and so your actions should create a safe environment rather than a re-traumatizing environment.
It can apply to anyone. So if I’m a parent or a therapist and I have a client or a child who is going off the rails screaming at me, then I’m not going to turn around and scream at them, or I’m not going to automatically punish them, but I may stop and say “Why is she doing that? This isn’t like her. Maybe something is going on.” It’s taking that moment to pause and stop and think before we respond, in a way that is thoughtful, in a way that is not going to re-traumatize. Because that’s what we want above all else – an approach of “What I’m doing isn’t harming you.” That’s being trauma-informed.
I said before that trauma doesn’t respect class. Trauma affects all of us, but people who are of lower
socio-economic class, living in disadvantaged neighborhoods, do have more bad incidents where they live and so you often see higher instances of trauma.
Interviewer: For Mental Health Awareness Month this month, I know there are about a million ways it would be great for us all to be more aware about mental health issues. What would you like to see our community more aware of?
MG:I want people to be aware of two things – the prevalence of mental illness – it’s 1 in 5 people! A lot of people have mental illness.
Two – mental illness is not what’s portrayed on TV. It doesn’t mean you’re crazy. There’s a lot of stigma around mental illness and that’s why people don’t get help, why they are ashamed, why they may not share their struggle with loved ones –they don’t want to be treated differently.
Interviewer: Yeah, one in five, that’s a lot!
MG: It’s extremely common! It’s everywhere! Most people also don’t know that the most common mental illness is anxiety and mood disorders, but people think it’s schizophrenia. Well, that’s 1% of the population. People think that is the face of mental illness, when really it looks different for most people. So when we can speak about it, put a face on it, and decrease the stigma and shame around it, I think that helps.