Life after trauma program first step towards recovery

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suffered in childhood – such as emotional or physical abuse – can significantly affect a person’s physical and mental health well into adulthood. To help these people finally heal, social workers in the St. Michael’s Academic Family Health Teams began a program that has treated more than 200 people.

The program teaches life skills in a group setting over 10 weeks. For most it’s their first interaction with a mental health setting.

“We give people the skills to start to understand how their beliefs and behaviours are connected to the events of the past,” says Celia Schwartz, a social worker based at St. Michael’s Health Centre.

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Patients may have physical ailments such as fibromyalgia and chronic pain or destructive behaviours such as substance abuse or eating disorders. Although they may not be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, they will identify the root cause of these behaviours as traumatic abuse in childhood such as sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

“Our group caters to individuals who are able to identify and want to work on this issue,” says Schwartz.

The need for the Life After Trauma program arose when the number of referrals was greater than the team could handle on a one-to-one basis. The group sessions host an average of 10 participants. There are few resources available elsewhere in the city, especially for men, and they often have lengthy waiting lists.

The program is based on several sources including the book “Life After Trauma,” which was adapted to the primary care setting by Schwartz and fellow social workers Ashley Shultz, Amy Babcock and Heather Campbell. Schwartz and Babcock co-facilitate the women’s group and Schwartz and Campbell co-facilitate the men’s group. Social work students are also involved, observing sessions at first, and later co-facilitating a session as part of their Master’s program.

There are three core modules – trauma symptoms, core beliefs and triggers. The program consists of understanding key areas impacted by trauma: relationships and self-esteem and how to cope with impacts that most survivors feel such as shame and anger. Patients in the program learn from each other in group discussions and through class exercises.

“It’s a way of opening up a discussion when people haven’t had it before,” says Schwartz.

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The program acts as a first step towards recovery.

“It’s focused enough with sizable goals that look at how we move people forward in a realistic manner,” adds Schwartz. “We want to have enough impact that we’re getting people in the right direction.”