According to the Inequality in Australia 2018 report published by the Australian Council of Social Service and the University of New South Wales, Australia is now more unequal than any time since the early 80s, even if as a country we have never been richer.
The Dropping off the Edge research program led by Jesuit Social Services, continues to identify Broadmeadows and its surrounding areas as one of those of communities which bear a disproportional burden of disadvantage.
If we choose to use a negative lens to look at our community, we can see a complex conflation of urgent social issues that conspire against our local residents. At a societal level, this translates into low rates of education and employment, and high rates of poverty, disease, disability and criminal convictions.
What this aseptic, macroscopic perspective fails to do is to capture the daily impact of this complex reality: a high prevalence of human suffering that anyone who spends time in our community can witness.
Personally, that suffering becomes almost unbearable when it affects children and young people. To understand what I am talking about, in this text I have interspersed some slightly fictionalised flashbacks, based on the sort of things I see in the dark times, when I think of many young people for whom there was a clear sense of impending doom.
- “Can you see the evil entities mate? They travel through the fluorescent tubes and at night they are waiting to fucking jump on me, I hear them all the time, that’s why I don’t sleep, I have to protect her! See, last night two of them got into my hand, can you see those little bumps in my finger? They are smart, the little assholes, and now they are moving all over the wall, see? Get out of here, you motherfuckers!
- When was the last time you had a good sleep, Jesse?
- A good sleep, he says! Ha! I asked if you can see them. Can you hear that mate?
- Dad, are they talking to you again? Is it the boxer this time?
- Yeah, bloody Lawrence Tauasa again, I will kill the cunt even if it’s the last thing I do, don’t worry sweetie!”
A well-established body of research links exposure to the kind of complex trauma (see definition below) that can be inferred from that snippet, to modifications in the brain’s architecture. Prolonged exposure to trauma can lead to ‘toxic stress’, which, in addition to affecting brain development, impairs the child’s ability to trust and relate to others. When children are traumatised, they find it very hard to regulate behaviour and soothe or calm themselves.
With all the scientific data available today, it is clear that young people exposed to complex trauma have an extremely limited ability to modify their behaviours without intensive support. Yet many of our societal systems are built on a paradigm of choice and consequence, crime and punishment, effort and merit, as if all these children would really have to do is to try hard.
The logical conclusion of all this scientific evidence is that for that is that for these children and young people, who did not choose where they were born, there is little choice, and certainly no equality. And the opposite of equality is oppression. It may be unintended, but the oppression of a small minority is the logical consequence of our current state of affairs.
The following poem was written well before I could understand this rationally, in response to a series of incidents involving young participants of our programs:
Angry, frantic, furious, raging kids
Lashing out at everything, anything.
Instinctive, not irrational, defiance, a response to
Exclusion and betrayal, to the full
Negation of their right to joy as children.
Attracting attention unapologetically,
Thinking there’s nothing to lose.
Intense dissatisfaction, certainty of
No one to trust.
- “So how I can help you today, Geoff?
- My worker here said I could get the Youth Allowance and that, ‘cause I am 16 now.
- So when did you leave home for the first time?
- 3 years ago or something like that. Mum’s boyfriend used to hit us with his belt, fuck those metal bits hurt. I had enough and I pissed off.
- And what happened next?
- After a couple of months I went to live with dad, I swear to God I have never been more hungry in my life, that was worse! Always bloody boozing, the fridge always empty.
- And then?
- My brother and I have been couch surfing at a friend’s house.
- When did you leave school?
- I think I was 12.
- Do you take drugs?
- No Ma’am. Well I smoke.
- Well here is the form you need to fill in, and here is some information to quit smoking.
- Thanks, see ya’
- So mate, that giant bong I saw on the couch was just for decoration?
- Hahaha! I was not going to say yes to a freakin’ Centrelink social worker!”
For communities like Broadmeadows, the depth and spread of the transformation required almost amounts to a revolution. Unfortunately we live difficult times, and most of us are happy enough to accept the status quo in a time of rising disengagement with political processes, and of a gradual but undeniable rise of right wing extremism.
While I am pessimistic about the Big Revolution, thinking about what has been happening in our local community in the last few years, everywhere I look I see the undeniable signs of a small revolution. If we can’t change the whole of our society yet, perhaps we can start by changing ourselves?
A SMALL REVOLUTION: RADICAL INCLUSION
The starting point for this small revolution should be a radical definition of what inclusion must look like for young people whose traumatic histories have made violence and aggression, or withdrawal and dissociation, both necessary for survival and intrinsic to their identity. We should be brave enough to state that anything that is not effective inclusion should be called exclusion, and to take responsibility for the consequences of this exclusion later in life.
- “What are you up to Shanae? We will be late to pick up the food!
- With my sister, whenever we walk past a cemetery or anywhere where there’s dead people we have to crouch and freeze for 5 seconds.
- What for?
- You know, good luck and that.
- And how have you gone since the last school holidays? It’s been a while…
- Good, grandpa says I have been good at home, even with the court case and all. They caught mum selling drugs again…
- And how are things at school?
- Fine, but I am going to this new school in Coburg for a term after the holidays.
- Is that the teaching unit?
- Do you know I have been to 5 schools already? Yes! How do you know about that?”
If we can agree on radical inclusion as our ‘raison d’etre”, all that remains is to choose a revolutionary method, ideally one that is not so much underpinned by our values or our political persuasion, but by a strong scientific foundation. This way our small revolution can enlist a wide range of supporters. For the issue at hand, I believe that the best choice by far is Trauma Informed Practice.
For our purposes, a broad definition of trauma as ‘an overwhelming experience that can undermine the individual’s belief that the world is good and safe’ will suffice, but we may want to make a distinction between acute trauma, which often involves a onetime, short occurrence, and complex trauma, which generally involves multiple incidents, may be longer in duration, and involves personal threat, violence, and violation (e.g., child abuse, bullying, sexual violence, and domestic violence).
A key theoretical foundation of trauma informed theory was the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study published in 1998. One of the conclusions of the study was that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are common: almost two-thirds of study participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs. We could use this piece of statistics as another tool for inclusion: realising that most of us have experienced some traumatic circumstances in our lives may prevent us from looking at our clients as “the other”.
One of the major findings was that the ACE score, a total sum of the different categories of ACEs reported by participants, could be used both to assess cumulative childhood stress, but also to predict the likelihood of negative health and well-being outcomes (e.g. alcoholism and illicit drug abuse, depression, suicide attempts, etc.) across the life course. The study, which followed over 17,000 participants, found strong evidence of a graded dose response, which means that increased exposure to ACEs resulted in increased negative outcomes.
Importantly, the study drew on multidisciplinary scientific knowledge to suggest a physiological and sociological mechanism by which ACEs influence those crucial health and wellbeing outcomes mentioned earlier (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Source: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html
Needless to say, the discovery of this research, and of the different trauma informed practice methodologies that have been developed over the last few decades, was a life-transforming experience for many of us. All of a sudden we had discovered not only a language to talk about people we instinctively knew so well, but also a rigorous discipline with remarkable predictive power and therefore, a solid practical application.
According to the renowned American psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk, adopting a trauma informed lens unlocks four fundamental truths:
“Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring wellbeing.
Language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning.
We have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through such basic activities as breathing, moving and touching.
We can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.”
As can be seen from this except, trauma informed practice is fundamentally a hopeful discipline: it recognises the human brain as a social organ, able to be continually shaped by experience. According to the same author:
“Our great challenge is to apply the lessons of neuroplasticity, the flexibility of brain circuits, to rewire the brains and reorganise the minds of people who have been programmed by life itself to experience others as threats and themselves as helpless”.
Trauma informed practice could explain why some of our strategies worked well. I remember telling my workers years ago: ‘when young people arrive, ensure they see that you are happy to see them, give them a high five!’ Of course I had no idea that this constituted an important element of what we now know is called “unconditional positive regard”.
Using Trauma Informed Practice we can understand, for instance, that many challenging behaviours we can observe in children and young people (e.g. oppositional, defensive, withdrawn or enraged) may have deep roots in action patterns that were established to survive serious threats. Furthermore, science also confirms that strong emotions can block pain following the release of morphine-like substances manufactured in the brain, which explain why some of your young people can seem to act out “for fun”. Armed with this knowledge, we can access increased reservoirs of empathy, as intensely off-putting or upsetting as these behaviours may be.
Crucially, it also offered light on many areas in which we found our practice to be quite lacking. To this day, we continue to find practical ways to adapt sensory input (e.g. noise, light, activity levels) to suit the regulatory needs of the young people we work with.
Van der Kolk places a huge amount of emphasis on the importance of relationships, language and body awareness:
“Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard […] In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
These are just some examples of Trauma Informed Practice principles and of their relevance for our daily work. If they have sparked any interest, I suggest The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk and Tom Brunzell’s (et al.) paper Trauma-Informed Positive Education: Using Positive Psychology to Strengthen Vulnerable Students as two excellent resources to start this stimulating journey.
I’d like to finish spending with a few thoughts on something I alluded to before. Apart from all the practical advantages of adopting this approach, the scientific rigour that trauma informed practice brings to the table has the side benefit of validating value systems that could be considered soft, if not, subversive, by some of our current political leaders, because they:
Emphasise the need for dialogue and peace instead of confrontation and aggression.
Put relationships before transactions.
Recognise the critical importance of compassion and empathy.
Focus on lived experience (nurture) as opposed to identity (nature).
Understand that humans have a natural inclination to live in a society.
Underscore the importance of community to allow people to feel safe and thrive.
- “So wonderful to see you Mikaela! We were worried sick about you!
- We hadn’t seen you for such a long time, and the last few times you looked very unhappy…
- You mean that I gave yous a run for your money?
- Exactly that!
- You look so well! How’s school?
- It’s alright. I don’t really like it but. How’s everyone here?
- We’re all doing well! Are you still writing rap?
- Yes, do you want to listen to one of them?
- Of course!
- That’s awesome! Do you have a clean version? I could play it on my radio show…
- Well what’s the point? It would only last 3 seconds, without all the swearing!
- Hahaha, true!
- Can I have a hug?