A reflection on trauma-informed approaches to evaluation and research

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Trauma: experience that causes intense physical and psychological stress reactions. (SAMHSA, 2012, p. 2)

Trauma-informed care: TIC is a strengths-based service delivery approach “that is grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma, that emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both providers and survivors, and that creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment” (Hopper, Bassuk, & Olivet, 2010, p.82).

Mental health is finally gaining the attention it has long warranted as a public health concern.  Athletes and celebrities have helped to elevate awareness of the importance of mental health and concern for the ways that we as a culture fall short in supporting mental wellbeing. This increased attention shines light on the implications of trauma for professionals across many fields.  At ICH we see the increased attention represented in the mix of our current projects that have as their central focus an effort to expand and strengthen trauma-informed care for vulnerable populations; but as our team recently came together to discuss, the impact of trauma extends beyond these most evident cases.  As we struggle to cope with a pandemic and climate disasters on a global scale, the experience of trauma seems almost universal.  In ways both overt and subtle, so many of us are affected by the physical, social, emotional, or spiritual effects of trauma.

Our work as evaluators is shaped by the unique personal histories that we each carry, just as we seek to engage others bearing their own trauma histories.  In recognizing the ways in which we and those we engage with have experienced trauma and by adopting trauma-informed practices, we strengthen our collaborations and promote control and empowerment.  Through this, our evaluations are made stronger and our communities are made stronger.

Some ways to implement trauma-informed evaluation*:

  • Recognize that trauma-related symptoms and behaviors originate from adapting to traumatic experiences. Refrain from passing judgment on people’s coping mechanisms.
  • Minimize the risk of retraumatizing or replicating prior trauma dynamics. Put participant welfare first in planning and follow-up, and normalize a range of feelings and emotions.
  • Create a safe environment: Plan reactions and establish safety plans with participants.
  • Support control, choice, and autonomy. Be guided by the participant.
  • Create collaborative relationships and participation opportunities. Offer ways for participants to have input into shaping research and evaluation processes.
  • Use a strengths-focused perspective: Highlight adaptation over symptoms and resilience over pathology.
  • Develop strategies to address secondary trauma and promote self-care. Be aware of your own reactions and your own history. Promote a workplace culture of mutual support

*Led by Carrie Fisher, ICH has developed guidelines for trauma-informed data collection and has presented these locally and nationally at conferences and trainings. ICH has also authored a manuscript on this topic that is currently under peer review.

Kristin King, MPPM

Senior Research and Evaluation Project Manager