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JFCS trainings explain agency’s trauma-informed approach to care

Melissa Zimmerman

After the findings from a national Adverse Childhood Experience Study recognized that a third of the population of the United States suffers from trauma, Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Southern Arizona worked to make the organization a more trauma-informed space.

Melissa Zimmerman, vice president of clinical services at JFCS, hosted community trainings on trauma-informed care for different organizations over the past year. The workshops and lectures originally were  geared toward Holocaust survivors and were made possible by a grant from the Jewish Federations of North America. The grant is ending this month, but Zimmerman will continue the presentations to local organizations.

Trauma, Zimmerman explains, is not what happens to a person but rather the response to the event.  She uses the example of a car accident — some people recover without any fear of being in a car while others have anxiety during car rides. “It’s not what happened, it’s the way your body responds to what happened,” she says.

“Trauma-informed care is a treatment framework. It’s basically a way in which you see the world, it’s like a lens. It involves understanding the pervasiveness of trauma, recognizing the effects of trauma, and also responding to individuals with trauma histories in a way that promotes physical, emotional, and psychological safety. It helps to empower them,” says Zimmerman. “Anyone who works with humans should know this information.”

Zimmerman says the ongoing Centers for Disease Control-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences study, which started in the 1990s, proves that childhood trauma occurrences follow an individual into adulthood. Childhood traumas can change a person’s personality, coping skills, and learning skills.

The study found that 67% of people have had some history of trauma in their childhood. The study also found there is a correlation between health conditions and traumatic experiences. This is because trauma affects the way the brain develops, Zimmerman says, adding that traumatic experiences affect the sympathetic nervous system or the fight or flight reaction for a person. When a child is dealing with trauma they are less likely to be focusing on developing their problem-solving skills. This explains why people who experience trauma struggle in school and in social settings.

“Someone with trauma history is more likely to be reactive and have difficulty maintaining relationships. They may not process information in the same way. By creating environments that recognize that, we can allow people to be successful,” says Zimmerman.

Zimmerman says this study has led behavioral health clinics and organizations to make changes to how they run their organizations. JFCS has been instituting changes in the lobby to make the space more trauma-informed and welcoming.

“It’s really a paradigm shift. So in the behavioral health community where we help people with their problems, in the past we would have looked at someone’s problem and asked what is wrong with them. Through a trauma-informed lens we look at this person and say what happened to this person,” says Zimmerman.

Zimmerman says the presentation is not about being politically correct. “It’s just about being more aware and more sensitive, but it’s not about policing behavior and it’s definitely not about preparing to know everyone’s trigger.”

Zimmerman is willing to deliver the presentation to any organization,  free of charge. For more information, call 795-0300 ext. 2381 or email mzimmerman@jfcstucson.org.