We often hear that strong and resilient people have the capacity to bend but not break in the face of adversity or trauma. And it is true that some people bring a deep reservoir of strength to whatever crisis they may face, emerging from it seemingly unscathed.
But as a mental health professional, I’ve seen my share of people, strong and resilient people, who do, in fact, break. Truth is, we all have a breaking point — whether in response to the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, unemployment, chronic poverty, a violent encounter, the loss of a pet, or exposure to abuse and bullying as a child. These types of traumatic experiences, these moments of breaking, can cause any number of behavioral or physical health issues, from depression to anxiety to heart disease.
Sadly, for some, those moments occur over and over when they are young and especially vulnerable. Many years ago, when I oversaw children’s services at Wyandot Center for Community Behavioral Healthcare, our staff was called to an area high school to see if we could help a student whose behaviors had turned violent. She was on the verge of expulsion after a number of outbursts lead to a number of punishments — a response that only exacerbated her behavior.
Rather than advise another round of punishments, we sat down with the girl and asked her a simple question: “What has happened to you?” Through this inquiry, we learned that she was the victim of repeated sexual assaults from a family member. Once we made this discovery, we were able to get the girl into treatment and she was able to stay in school.
Too often our culture turns away from those who have experienced trauma like this girl. And too often we spin our wheels blaming or punishing them for their challenging behaviors. But rather than seeing these moments of breaking as signs of weakness and failure, more and more individuals and organizations that work with survivors of trauma have begun to help them see their traumatic experiences as opportunities for growth and healing.
To facilitate this growth, the Wyandot Center and other health and human service providers have begun to practice and provide extensive training in “trauma-informed care.” This is quite simply the act of remaining sensitive to the trauma someone has experienced and adopting practices that avoid re-traumatizing that person. Rather than focus on what is “wrong” with those we serve, a trauma-informed approach calls on us to ask these people: “What happened?” To create a trauma-informed culture requires us to accept that life inevitably scars us. Rather than hide those scars, we sometimes need to bring them into relief.
To further understand this perspective, consider the traditional Japanese art of Kintsugi. At its essence, Kintsugi is about taking the fragments from broken objects — say the pieces of a cherished hand-crafted vase that falls from the cabinet — and creating something new from them. Rather than throw the broken object away in sorrow or anger, the Kintsugi artist fuses those fragments together in a way that enhances the breaks. These artists typically use a precious metal — often lacquer dusted with powdered gold — to bind the broken pieces, making it beautiful in its own right, cracks and all.
In the same way, we should aim to help those who have felt shattered, or “broken,” to see the potential of the new people who can emerge from traumatic experiences. So when we ask, “What happened to you?” (rather than “What’s wrong with you?”), we take our first step toward acknowledging the scars our stories of trauma have left. Rather than shaming someone for those moments when they’ve felt broken, we create an environment where that person can learn how best to heal.
As Mental Health Month begins, we should all try to give someone like that girl we saw many years ago a chance to return to school and get on a path to recovery. We can give them hope that the shards of their life can be fused together into something beautiful and strong.
Randy Callstrom is president and CEO of Wyandot Inc.