What separates life’s setbacks and sadnesses from trauma is the magnitude of impact on one’s life, mood, and even sense of self. Assault, natural disasters, unexpected death, and the gnawing anxiety that comes from an increasingly riven society — not to mention a society-destabilizing pandemic — can all cause the profound distress that constitutes trauma.
Interacting with those who have experienced trauma can present unique challenges, according to Cheryl Williams-Hecksel, who coordinates an evidence-based trauma treatment certificate at MSU’s School of Social Work and cofounded the Trauma Services and Training Network with Dr. Natalie Moser in 2018 with a team of dedicated colleagues.
The human services community — which encompasses psychology, social work, medicine, and education — uses the term “trauma informed” to designate practices that center trauma survivors and use clinical findings to support better outcomes for those who have experienced trauma and those serving them. Williams-Hecksel and many others are working together to make trauma informed teaching and support services at MSU the norm.
“To be trauma informed means we treat everyone as if they might have experienced something traumatic,” says Williams-Hecksel. “We don’t demand that students disclose their adversity and their difficulty to us. Instead we treat everyone with flexibility, with the recognition that when people exhibit behavior we’re not comfortable with, or that seems confrontational, it may be related to their sense of safety.”
Peering into the Silos
During the spring of 2018, Williams-Hecksel, Moser and their colleagues recognized there were many people on campus with a strong commitment to trauma informed work, but they were doing it without knowledge of one another.
“Trauma informed work on campus isn’t only about the client or the student, but also about culture and climate. This work needs to have an ecological approach. We were all doing this work, but we were doing it in silos,” says Williams-Hecksel.
This became especially apparent when Williams-Hecksel learned that multiple MSU units were servicing the same population — unbeknownst to one another.
“I learned that Psychology was having grad students do trauma assessments of kids at a community agency, while my social work grad students were there providing treatment, and we didn’t know about each other’s presence there,” she says. “So in addition to feeling compelled to support survivors on campus, we realized we weren’t working with knowledge of each other.:
As this came to light, the leadership of the Department of Psychology and the School of Social Work agreed to support a larger event, aimed at pulling people working in trauma informed services across campus together for a summit.
“This quickly grew to include people from academic units, as well as people providing support services to students. From a passion and values perspective, we kept coming together and thinking about how we could collaborate,” says Williams-Hecksel.
Forming a Network
The clear need for common definitions, practices, and trauma informed collaboration led Williams-Hecksel, Moser, and their colleagues to found MSU’s Trauma Services and Training Network.
“It was in the fallout of everything happening on campus related to Nassar,” says Moser. “I think that’s originally what brought Psychology and Social Work together. At the time, we hadn’t had that much collaboration, and the Center for Survivors brought us together in the hope we could all support the community better in healing this trauma. More broadly, this got us all thinking about what services are available on campus for trauma survivors and what training is happening on campus.”
Crucial to getting everyone sharing common definitions and practices was a manual developed by the University of Buffalo Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care. Psychology and Social Work at MSU brought in the people who lead the Buffalo Institute and conducted a one-day workshop in 2019 on how to create a trauma informed organization.
“We didn’t have access to people beyond our department chairs, supervisors, or unit leaders. We said this needs to be bottom up work,” says Williams-Hecksel. “We were going to use that manual and what we learned from our newly formed learning community to come together and talk about the work we were doing on the unit level to be trauma informed. The idea is that we would come together as a learning community and share our experiences and support each other.”
A Learning Community is Born
MSU’s Academic Advancement Network hosts “Learning Communities” — groups of faculty who are eager to attend recurring meetings and collaborate around a specific pedagogical topic. The TSTN steering committee, now with members from across the campus community, saw an opportunity to create a means of recurring collaboration across units for those doing trauma informed work. Williams-Hecksel and Moser now co-facilitate the MSU Trauma Services and Training Network (TSTN) Learning Community.
The Learning Community has been meeting virtually throughout the pandemic, with meetings attendees sometimes numbering in the dozens. This has led to the much-needed collaboration and sharing of trauma informed practices that was lacking just two years ago. More than thirty different units have had representatives at Learning Community meetings.
“The resources that have supported this group have been things like our departments paying for speakers, a $500 grant for a research assistant through the Learning Community, The Prevention, Outreach and Education Department paying for a webpage. The School of Social Work developed the page itself. It’s a very collaborative effort.”
To be part of the Network or Learning Community is to be inspired by how many people on campus care about treating people with compassion and helping them heal, according to Williams-Hecksel and Moser.
“I think it’s important to say this was all voluntary, based on interest and passion,” says Moser.
If you would like to join the Learning Community or learn more about trauma informed practices at MSU and elsewhere:
Or contact the facilitators:
● Cheryl D Williams-Hecksel, Social Work, firstname.lastname@example.org
● Natalie Moser, Psychology, email@example.com