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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

Recovery from Trauma Requires Bridges to Connect

12/10/15 03:03 PM | Gloria Dickerson | Recovery, Trauma

Bridges to Connect Support People in Recovery from Trauma & Homelessness

Many people who have been homeless have lived through neglect, isolation, and multiple traumas. Because of these experiences, many are distrustful when they begin to engage in services. Are we as service providers prepared to bridge the chasm between our position of security and their position of multiple losses and wounds?Can we build a bridge across the space between us? Is our invitation to enter into a shared space of connection going to be well-received? Is our invitation enough to allow survivors to relax their self-protective defenses? Do we have the time to build relationships of trust and authentic connection?

It is critical that service providers and trauma survivors work together to build mutually trustful and collaborative relationships. During a recent training for service providers working with people who are homeless, one person described the confusing nature of building relationships with trauma survivors:

“I begin each day by saying good morning to each client. Most often people act like I don’t exist. Once in a while a person will say hello. This goes on every day. I try to be pleasant and speak to everyone, and still, very few people respond. It is easy to say that we should welcome everyone in our programs, but I don’t think what I am doing is working.”

The trainer acknowledged her experiences and replied:

“What you are doing is so important! It is wonderful. Don’t wait for the verbal acknowledgement. You can mirror acceptance and welcome, and you may not have it reflected back in brief service encounters. These encounters are point in time moments. In welcoming and engaging others with respect, you are at the very least planting a seed and building a bridge for individuals to consider reconnecting with others.”

The wounds of trauma may be so deep that it is hard for survivors to let others know what they want and need, but many welcome connection. Wounds may have occurred so early in life that words are not available or may seem flimsy and useless. The chasm between a trauma survivor and others may seem deep because the survivor is driven by a constant need to be self-protective.

The principles of a recovery-oriented, trauma-informed environment include providing safety and welcoming actions that can act as recovery triggers. A recovery trigger is something that inspires hope and shows survivors how to constructively begin to find ways out of confusion, isolation, and distrust, and move towards hope. A recovery trigger can be a smile and the beginning of a welcoming and safe relationship.

Service providers can transform environments. A service culture designed to build relationships allows survivors to receive recovery invitations. Starting dialogues on how to build effective, recovery-focused relationships is important. Consistency and respectful verbal and non-verbal interactions are critical. Trust, mutual respect, and choice are essential.

Recovering from trauma is mostly a non-verbal process. Feeling safe enough to extend trust to others may be difficult, but the initial task of extending the invitation to trust falls on service providers. When trust is found, fearful emotions will diminish. Initial acceptance may not come verbally, but can be seen in responses to services providers and programs. Survivors may show rather than tell and respond in other ways. Watch for changes in actions such as showing up for appointments on time and more often.

Recovery-oriented, trauma-informed care does not require perfection. It takes one person to begin by thoughtfully offering the building blocks of recovery. How do you build recovery-oriented, trauma-informed relationship bridges?

Learn more about homelessness and recovery by listening an episode of t3's "Changing the Conversation" podcast series with Livia Davis, Vice President at the Center for Social Innovation:

Listen to Podcast

Additional Readings

A Framework for Developing Supports and Services for Families Experiencing Homelessness

Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study

Image by Jeroen van Abeelen (CC by 2.0), cropped for use on this page.

Gloria Dickerson

Written by Gloria Dickerson

Gloria Dickerson is a Recovery Specialist at the Center for Social Innovation. Her expertise in recovery derives from academic training and lived experience of recovery from trauma, mental illness, and homelessness. Gloria received a B.S. from Tufts University and has completed master’s level studies in Instructional Design and Psychiatric Rehabilitation.