You may have heard of Trauma-Informed Care. It is all the rage right now and for good reason. More organizations and even faith communities are adopting trauma-informed policies in order to ensure the health and well-being of their members. But it left me thinking: Do church policies go far enough in assuring protection for the traumatized?

In my work as a Registered Nurse, I specialize in Community Health, which is the synthesis of the practices of nursing and public health to promote and protect the health of population in all areas, including physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Community nursing, as a practice, combines the basic elements public health and community practice to aim in identifying strengths and weaknesses of specific communities, as well as fortify relationships and resources that can contribute to the overall healthiness of a community or population.

Why Do We Need To Be Trauma-Informed?

A paramount principle of my work is identifying, unpacking, and treating trauma: in any and all forms. This approach is referred to as Trauma-Informed Care and it is becoming more used and implemented across many platforms: schools, churches, neighborhoods, as research shows that the impact of trauma is widespread AND resilience can be fostered to lead to healthier, better outcomes.

I began to notice concerns about the lack of trauma-informed principles within the processes and policies of the church when I, myself, experienced a highly traumatizing, abusive encounter with my own bishop after turning to him for help with an abusive situation I was experiencing in my personal life. I tried to alert higher leaders of my bishop’s troubling behavior to no avail and found out that severe problems exist within the structure of the church.

Because I lived the problems firsthand, I know where they exist and why they are so damaging.

Why Is Trauma-Informed Care So Important In The Church? 

Unfortunately, we hear accounts of women being re-traumatized when seeking this refuge from church leaders. For a woman who is already dealing with profound trauma, whether it is domestic abuse, marital rape, or sexual assault, turning to our ecclesiastical leaders should be safe, because the church claims it is! We put our trust in the process and expect the structure to keep us safe and free from harm and re-traumatization. Often times, bishops may want to help, but lack the skill set and knowledge to know what may be helpful and what may be hurtful in situations of trauma.

Trauma-Informed Care Can Be Paired With Gospel Principles

Christ was a champion of those afflicted by illness, including trauma, as he said to the Nephites,

“Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you. Have ye any that are sick among you? . . . . Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy” (3 Nephi 17:6–7).

So, how can our leaders, our bishops, and our ward family help women in these circumstances of abuse feel safe and remain free of further trauma? Using principles of trauma-informed care, here are a few compiled tips for ANY church leader or church member to use if they should encounter a woman who discloses that she is or has experienced abuse or trauma. Regardless of the position or calling, these tips can help anyone ensure her safety and eventual path toward healing. They are also full of amazing common sense!

There Are 5 Pillars of Trauma-Informed Care 

1.Safety. Providing safe spaces where women can feel comfortable disclosing their feelings, no matter what they may be, is essential in handling the trauma. Church leaders and members can avoid asking intrusive questions and instead use reflective listening. Restate what she is telling you to let her know she is being heard. Notice any discomfort, respect it, and be aware and cognizant of this moving forward. Emphasizing that her safety is paramount can create a feeling of security for women in this situation.

2. Transparency and Trustworthiness. Laying the foundation of trust is key in helping anyone who has experienced a traumatic event. Remember, her world as she knew it has been shattered. She is experiencing an extreme sense of hopelessness and confusion and most likely trying to determine who to trust and how much to trust them. Church leaders can be open about their role in offering spiritual guidance while also being honest that they may not have all tools to help move through her grief. Church members can offer a listening ear and keep her confidence, by not sharing details that she may disclose. It is also imperative that a bishop or Relief Society President, called of God maintain confidentiality and discretion. Leaders should never offer untrained counseling or any sort of therapy and instead should ALWAYS refer out for this need.

3. Choice. Emphasizing freedom of choice for a woman who has experienced trauma is essential. Ecclesiastical leaders can provide judgement-free assistance and instill a sense of personal decision-making in a woman who is dealing with the trauma of abuse. Validating that she has choices can be empowering to her success in healing her pain. Church members can refrain from offering their own opinions about what she should do. Phrases like, “If my husband ever did this to me, I would . . .” are often not helpful in the context of supporting a women who is going through trauma. Simply re-iterating to her that she has choice and no matter what choices she must make or makes, she is fully supported can be incredibly healing for her.

4. Collaboration and Mutuality. Trauma survivors can feel alone and isolated. It is important for ecclesiastical leaders to provide her with a sense of support, build her community, and help her navigate resources. Get to know what community services are available in your area and refer her to these places. Seek her participation and collaboration regarding her needs. If it is a young woman who has experienced sexual assault, never require or expect her to meet alone with any male leader, as this situation may simply feel unsafe for her in light of the trauma. If the trauma survivor is a married woman, consider the family’s needs as a whole. A Relief Society President may provide assistance in bridging any gaps the family as a whole may have in regards to care and compassionate service. Ensure that she is aware and agreeable to the assistance she receives at this time.

4. Empowerment. After experiencing a traumatic event, many women feel a sense of mistrust in their own intuition. Helping her find her own strength and learn to trust herself again can be vital in assisting her to remain safe after abuse. Offer encouragement and validation when the opportunity arises. She may feel fear, anxiety, and confusion at what her future will hold. Assist her to know that she has worth of great measure. Forgiveness should not be pushed on a victim after experiencing trauma caused by another. Instead, a focus on healing can be empowering and helpful.

Overall, incorporating the principles of trauma-informed care within a ward family, church members, and especially among ecclesiastical leadership can create a safe and healthy congregational community. Our baptismal covenants in Mosiah 18:9, outline the beautiful promise that we “are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.”

It seems simple enough, but it does take intention, knowledge, and practice. We must be committed to stop the trauma and promote the healing.

What else is church for if not this?

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Lesley holds an RN, BSN from the University of Texas. Lesley has authored several published articles across a variety of platforms including the Salt Lake Tribune, BYU magazine, BTR.org and is a frequent media contributor. She functions as a Community Health Nurse for vulnerable populations and serves as a survivor advocate for victims of abuse. She aims to raise awareness of the effects of trauma on individuals and how trauma impacts community systems. Lesley has certifications and training in Trauma-Informed Care, Community Advocacy, Faith and Spiritual Development, Familial Mental Health, Culturally Competent Care, Domestic Violence Awareness, and Resiliency Development. Lesley lives in Virginia with her 4 children and her really hyper chihuahua, named Chaos.

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