Navigating Your Way Through Utilizing the Trauma-Informed Approach During Unfolding Trauma

By Nicola Chehade, Senior Specialist, Mental Health and Inclusion
Youth in Ukraine learn about finding work in a gig-based economy. (photo courtesy of UNITY)
Youth in Ukraine learn about finding work in a gig-based economy. (photo courtesy of UNITY)

More and more we are realizing the bearing that mental health has on our work in international development. Research shows nearly one in five people are impacted by poor mental health in conflict and post-conflict areas, and nearly 50 percent of all mental health issues globally start before the age of 14. The need to adjust our approach in designing programming and activities with more supportive behaviors has become increasingly crucial, especially in regions where trauma is unfolding in real time.  

Applying the six principles of trauma-informed care (i.e., safety; trustworthiness and transparency; peer support; collaboration and contribution; and cultural, historical, and gender issues), both in terms of how we design and deliver programming and also in how we respond to situations in which our participants have been somehow triggered, has a great effect on how members of local communities receive it. 

Making Cents International started light integration of a trauma-informed approach in economic opportunities work with adolescent girls and young women (AGYWs) living in vulnerable situations in 2018. Through the Insika ya Kusasa project, AGYWs worked with adult and peer mentors who provided encouragement and support to each other in developing their small enterprises, before hosting a Community Business Expo for their families, friends, and other community members to showcase their businesses.   

Recognizing that project’s success, I’m happy to say, we have ramped up our use of the approach throughout our activities, particularly in our monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning (MERL) services. A lot has happened in the world since 2018. The COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, and the breakout of multiple wars have forced us to be flexible and adaptive. The assistance we offer survivors and frontline workers must take into account the sensitivities and mental health and psychosocial support that are necessary when the trauma is still transpiring.  

An example of this is our Ukraine National Identity Through Youth (UNITY) Activity, with lead partner IREX, where we helped design facilitator and Training of the Trainers’ guidebooks that became living documents we regularly updated as we learned new lessons. The activity required us to develop a comprehensive curriculum aimed at training diverse groups, from youth workers and youth-serving organizations to school counselors and university deans, on integrating trauma-informed approaches into their programs. The participants would then cascade this knowledge within their networks, fostering a culture of support and understanding among those working with youth. But, after the war started, things changed so rapidly. Massive attacks and explosions left cities with power outages for days. The team pivoted and prepared to deliver training without electricity and in shelter locations. Thankfully, because of this preparation, we were able to carry on with a training despite a precarious situation that put a wrench in the original plans. They managed to quickly secure access to a safe space in a hotel conference room. They wanted participants to be ready for any situation and used the unpredictability of the moment as an example that this work can indeed be done even in the toughest of situations. They did not have access to presentation equipment or slides, so they relied on lively, engaging conversation and a few available handouts to complete the training.  

In Guyana, through the Youth Resilience, Inclusion, and Empowerment Project, Making Cents wrote the Youth Connection: A Holistic Approach to Supporting Youth curriculum for frontline workers from the Ministry of Health Services and Social Security. This curriculum promotes frontline youth workers to recognize and build youth’s assets and understand the impact of trauma to enhance their ability in providing direct support to at-risk youth. The Youth Connection curriculum also teaches self-care practices to reduce stress and burn-out, allowing youth workers to provide more sustained support to youth within their work areas. Fifty percent of the curriculum was dedicated to trauma-informed care and the other half to the Positive Youth Development approach. The trauma-informed care portion resonated with participants because the week of the training there was a terrible fatal fire at a residential school for indigenous youth in which several people perished. The incident underscored the urgency and importance of integrating these principles in programming to help people cope with their emotions. 

Embracing Trauma-Informed Strategies in Your Work 

How can you better incorporate trauma-informed strategies into your work? Familiarizing oneself with trauma-informed principles offers a foundation for flexible responses. Creating safe spaces and encouraging participation in defining these spaces can facilitate managing unexpected situations. Engage in participatory approaches, allowing participants to contribute to and shape their safe environments. You should also do your best to embrace authenticity and humanity. Demonstrating these qualities fosters trust. Acknowledging personal fears and vulnerabilities during challenging situations allows for genuine connections. Integrating self-care components into training sessions or curricula helps delineate spaces for learning and practicing support strategies. 

The need to address common barriers and misconceptions about these approaches sometimes arises. It’s vital to distinguish trauma-informed care from psychological interventions and emphasize its role in building trust and support networks. This approach is about embodying supportive behaviors, not clinical interventions. So, creating a healing, transparent environment is conducive to carving a path to collective transformation. Integrating trauma-informed approaches within MERL work has revealed transformative insights. Establishing a commitment to sharing experiences, adapting to real-time challenges, and continuously evolving your strategies is vital for fostering environments of resilience amidst traumas. 

It is important to note that when we talk about a trauma-informed approach, we are not advising to diminish other mental health matters. We suggest organizations adopt an overall mental health and wellbeing awareness approach that acknowledges that not all mental health matters are visible, meaning that participants may carry “invisible” mental health problems that are not easily discernable when working with them. Individuals have experiences that shape them, their behavior, their emotions, and their thinking, and sometimes they face specific types of challenges that are related to their identities. So, adopting an intersectional lens to better understand the different challenges people may face based on their identity markers (gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, religion, etc.) is really important. 

As Making Cents advances our work in this space, we look forward to sharing tools and resources to help implementers strengthen their capacity in trauma-informed work. For those who want to delve deeper into trauma-informed care, the newly released Trauma-informed Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning Activities Brief offers guidance on applying trauma-informed approaches to MERL processes and activities. Additionally, in early 2024, look out for the release of YouthPower2: Learning and Evaluation’s Mental Health and Psychosocial Support for Marginalized and Underrepresented Groups Toolkit.