NHCW 2016: Creating Safety from Race-Based Traumatic Stress

Monday, August 08, 2016

Since opening a year ago, Central City Concern’s Imani Center program has been providing outpatient mental health and drug and alcohol addiction treatment services specifically tailored to address barriers uniquely experienced by African Americans in mainstream treatment programs.

JoAnna Smith, the Imani Center’s Lead Mental Health Counselor, quickly recognized a trend in the center’s clients that she had begun to see in African-American clients she saw in prior years: addiction and mental health struggles triggered, maintained, and exacerbated by the trauma of racial oppressions.

“We see so many clients with post-traumatic stress disorder, a lot of people struggling with unresolved trauma histories,” JoAnna says. “Many of our clients have felt unsafe, unwelcome, targeted and discriminated against by the community for much of their lives.”

JoAnna recognizes the power of past experiences, particularly how they can profoundly shape people, for better or worse. She’s quick to point out that her own past—growing up in Portland, accessing great education, honing her counseling and social work skills at internships in South Central Los Angeles—has culminated in the fortunate position she finds herself in now. JoAnna extends that understanding to Imani Center clients, whose presenting mental health and addiction symptoms are rooted in their trauma.

Looking for ways to improve how she served Imani Center clients, JoAnna started learning about trauma-informed care, which is a framework used in CCC programs. She dove headfirst into learning more about the approach, completing a trauma-informed service certification program.

“Trauma-informed care is not a therapy, it’s not an intervention; it’s a way of understanding those we serve,” explains JoAnna. “It’s a framework that acknowledges how trauma affects people. And it’s an important part of supporting our clients who come to Imani with co-occurring disorders.”

Learning about trauma-informed care excited JoAnna so much that she brought it to the rest of the Imani Center staff, asking them which area of the program they thought could benefit most from utilizing the approach. Unanimously, they decided that they wanted to bring the framework into group work. Doing so, JoAnna says, begins and ends with creating safety.

“According to trauma-informed care, safety is the treatment. Each Imani Center group facilitator is responsible for creating an environment that is safe. Maybe more than anything else that we do, more than any other intervention, if we’ve created a safe environment for our clients, we’ve done our job.”

Each Imani Center staff member has now been trained to be mindful of three areas in their groups to create the safety so essential to bringing trauma-informed care to clients: presentation, tone, and structure. And though this approach was initially geared to integrate into group work, JoAnna is thrilled that trauma-informed care has spread to all parts of the program.

“Starting from when a client enters our building and meets our office manager, to when they do their first intake appointment and screening, to the groups, we ask ourselves, ‘Are we treating clients with worth, dignity, and respect?’” says JoAnna. “That happens when we understand people are coming to us with a lot of trauma history and we remain mindful of that.”

Though a relatively new program, the Imani Center has courageously embraced an effective trauma-informed approach that asks more of each staff member—as JoAnna summarizes, “even more awareness, more hospitality, more compassion”—to better serve their clients. And it’s paying off.

“A safe environment enables clients to integrate their traumatic experiences into their life stories instead of having them at odds,” JoAnna says.

A core goal of the Imani Center is to be a place where clients can be who they are, where they can bring their past and current experiences—with addiction and mental health struggles, homelessness, unemployment, and criminality, as well as race-based discrimination and prejudice—in the hopes of finding healing. JoAnna believes that the training and awareness she and her colleagues have integrated into the program is helping clients do just that.

“We the staff are the agents of the structure. When we approach our clients from that trauma lens, we understand that we get to create the environment of safety for them, which makes a world of a difference.”

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