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The Price to Pay for being a Survivor: The Need for Trauma-Informed Universities

The Price to Pay for being a Survivor: The Need for Trauma-Informed Universities

*Trigger warning/self-care for trauma/sexual violence/possible triggers for many traumatic experiences*

A few months ago, I was sitting in a graduate seminar when I saw my phone light up, notifying me of a new text message from a colleague in the program. Although my phone should’ve been away, I checked the text to read a long message requesting my help with one key line that made my heart sink, “My student was sexually assaulted.”

Although my heart hurt immediately, it was unfortunately an event that happened far too often to many of my students in the two years I taught, and to me as well. My friend asked for resources, how to best help the student, and how to reaffirm the student’s humanity in such a hurtful moment. They asked me specifically as I am also a survivor of sexual assault and am open about my experience with my colleagues. I was initially so glad and grateful that I had the opportunity to be a resource to someone else and to educate them on what could be done to help.

I felt the situation was urgent, so I began to respond to my friend with resources for the student, resources for them as an instructor, and I immediately went into “fix it” mode by asking questions to try and tailor the information to the student who had been hurt. Then, a text comes through and says, “it was one of her friends, she knew the person who assaulted her” and my own personal experience came flooding back into the forefront of my mind. It triggered a mild panic attack. As the panic attack subsided and I went through my day, the event was repeating through my head and I finally asked myself “Why am I the one responsible to provide this information?”

I need to make it clear that I hold my colleague and friend in no way, shape, or form, responsible for the trigger, and appreciated that they felt comfortable and confident to come to me for help. But I learned a valuable lesson that day: A survivor that is open about their experience can easily turn into a resource for other people’s traumas. But a bigger worry was brought to my attention: Why aren’t teachers taught how to handle trauma effectively and empathetically with their students? Why are we not given the tools and required to be trauma-informed?

With that being said, here are some facts to consider:

  • 23% of women and 5% of men are raped or sexually assaulted on college campuses (RAINN, n.d.).
  • 21% of college students report having experienced dating violence by a current partner, and 32% of college students report experiencing dating violence by a previous partner (Libertin, 2017).
  • 1 in 4 students have a diagnosable illness and 40% of those go unreported and untreated (“Top Mental Health Challenges Facing Students”, n.d.).
  • About half of the college student population will experience the loss of a loved one during college (Stapley & Morecraft, 2015)
  • 30% of college students report to feeling difficulty to function due to depression (National Institute of Mental Health, n.d.) and LGBTQIAP+ college students experience depression and suicidal ideations at four times the rate as cisgender and heterosexual counterparts (Intrabola, 2017).
  • 36% of college students are food insecure and 9% report to being homeless (Romo, 2018).
  • PTSD effects 17% of college students (Lee, n.d.)

All of these things can, and do, cause an emotional response due to the extreme negativity of the event, otherwise known as trauma (PsychGuides, n.d.). During my two years of being an instructor at the university level, every semester I had at least two students disclose they had recently been sexually assaulted, at least one admit to contemplating suicide that semester, and at least one attempt suicide during the semester. And those were the students who chose to disclose to me. So, if anywhere between 10% and 50% of our classrooms are dealing with, or will deal with, trauma at some point during their education, why are we not educating our instructors and professors to be trauma-informed?

Being trauma-informed means that each instructor would have larger knowledge of the impact of trauma, an understanding for what different types of trauma look like, being able to recognize the symptoms of trauma, and being able to respond to those signs to implement procedures and practices to reduce the risk of re-traumatization (Lamb, 2017). Although being trauma-informed was developed through social work and has been used traditionally for primary education, trauma reaches far beyond the years of five to 18, so continuing trauma-informed classrooms for adults as well is necessary and critical for a positive educational experience. Having trauma-informed instructors and professors has great, and necessary benefits for the university classroom:

  1. It gives the instructor a repertoire of knowledge to aid their students in their own trauma.
  2. It impacts the ways instructors teach and the activities they do in the classroom to ensure they are not re-triggering students who may be dealing with trauma.
  3. It provides a safe and healthy learning environment for all students, whether their trauma has been disclosed to the professor or not.
  4. It benefits the professors and instructors as well. We are human too and may deal with our own trauma, so this provides resources for personal mental health and support.
  5. It minimizes the risk of survivors who are open about their trauma being re-victimized or triggered by being asked for help with someone else’s trauma.

Of course, there is never a sure-fire way to eliminate potentially triggering events. By requiring instructors to become trauma informed, universities have the opportunity to greatly minimize re-traumatization of both students, colleagues, and friends to ensure the best environments possible to learn and grow. University faculty are the first line of defense for reducing trauma. We have the most interaction with our students, get to know them on levels that others don’t, so we have a responsibility to our students to ensure their right to the best educational environment possible. Trauma comes in many forms, different severity levels, and at different times in life and it’s time to make sure universities are places that aid in overcoming trauma, not revisiting it.

 

If you or someone you know are interested in learning more about trauma-informed practices, here are links to resources:

 

 

 

 

Resources

Intrabartola, L. (2017, October 24). LGBTQ College Students Experience Depression, Suicidal Thoughts Four Times More Frequently Than Heterosexual Peers. Retrieved from https://news.rutgers.edu/lgbtq-college-students-experience-depression-su...

Lee, S. (2n.d.). College Students with PTSD Support & Coping Techniques for a Positive Education Experience. Retrieved from https://www.affordablecollegesonline.org/college-resource-center/college...).

Libertin, A. (2017, November 30). The Truth about Domestic Violence on College Campuses. Retrieved from https://hawcdv.org/the-truth-about-domestic-violence-on-college-campuses/

National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Depression and College Students. Retrieved from https://www.csus.edu/aba/police/documents/depression-college-students.pdf

PsychGuides. “Trauma Symptoms, Causes and Effects.” PsychGuides.com, www.psychguides.com/guides/trauma-symptoms-causes-and-effects/.

RAINN. (n.d.). Campus Sexual Violence: Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/statistics/campus-sexual-violence

Romo, V. (2018, April 04). Hunger And Homelessness Are Widespread Among College Students, Study Finds. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/04/03/599197919/hunger-and-...

Stapley, J. C., & Morecraft, J. J. (2015, December). College Student Bereavement: What Advisors Need to Know. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articl...

Top Mental Health Challenges Facing Students. (n.d). Retrieved from https://www.bestcolleges.com/resources/top-5-mental-health-problems-faci...

Lamb, M. (Director). (2017, July 24). What does it mean to be Trauma-Informed?

. Retrieved from https://www.turnweb.org/videos/what-does-it-mean-to-be-trauma-informed/

 

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