Sensitizing our system with trauma-informed care

One in three people has a history of childhood neglect or abuse and for many, the experiences continue to haunt them throughout their lives.

“People who have experienced trauma have much greater risk of chronic disease, obesity, smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, work absenteeism, teenage pregnancy – and the list goes on,” says Dr. Catherine Classen.

“The psychological impact of trauma causes physical effects that increase the risk and severity of health problems in these affected people,” says Classen. “That in turn increases the burden on our health system profoundly.”

Few health-care workers understand the links between past trauma and today’s mental and physical health problems. Even fewer know how to accommodate the special needs that these patients present. The result is that people with trauma histories often continue unhealthy patterns that bring them back into hospital time after time.

“The extent of this problem is enormous, as is the impact on the system,” says Classen. “But if we can improve how our system treats these patients, we will have a big impact on society as a whole.”

Supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Classen and her colleagues – Drs. Robin Mason and Janice Du Mont from WCRI along with Dr. Clare Pain (Mount Sinai) and Dr. Carol Stalker (Wilfred Laurier), hosted an interdisciplinary meeting of North American trauma experts.

“Improving health-care providers’ knowledge of how interpersonal trauma relates to addictions, violence and chronic illness is a major priority,” says Classen.

“Ultimately we are working to develop tools and resources that will enable health workers to use the health-care system to treat trauma survivors more effectively.”

Dr. Catherine Classen’s CIHR-funded meeting was the first step to develop a tool to enable health-care providers to provide traumainformed care. It attracted 22 of the best and brightest experts in psychological trauma from across North America, and was quickly leveraged into a knowledge translation event that drew more than 250 mental health practitioners. The enormous response underscores the international and provincial importance of making health care more sensitive to the impacts of trauma. Classen is a Women’s College Hospital psychologist, a senior scientist at WCRI and an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto.