Why Scotland's institutions should be 'trauma informed' – Karyn McCluskey

The Scottish, or is it Glaswegian, phrase that something is “better felt than telt” has always been a barometer for me when I visit places.

Understanding the trauma people have experienced can help shape and inform how they are supported (Picture: John Devlin)
Understanding the trauma people have experienced can help shape and inform how they are supported (Picture: John Devlin)

You can read all the websites you like, but nothing comes near to being in a service, speaking to those who use and often love it.

There are words that are in common parlance now, and none more so than ‘trauma informed’, which seems to have permeated almost all of our institutions, and it’s a good thing. Being ‘trauma-informed’ means just that: you are informed about trauma. However, as we know, information does not, of itself, change behaviour.

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Trauma can arise from many places; abuse, neglect, violence, addiction and more. Understanding the trauma people have experienced can help us shape and inform how we support them. Our justice system is full of people who live their lives in fear because of trauma; victims, witnesses and those who have perpetrated crimes.

‘Trauma informed’ is a start (how we think); being trauma responsive is where we want to be (how we act). Our biggest challenge is to change culture and practice to make it live and be felt: action, not just words.

It was with some joy I went to a primary school last week and really felt the change. I’ve been around primary schools for years working with teachers, sometimes the kids, the volunteers, around preventing violence and embracing our communities’ assets.

It has been a privilege, and I’m in awe of some teachers and support staff in our schools. The staff in this particular school have transformed it into a place for education in its broadest sense, for kids and parents. The teachers know the parents and carers as well as they know the kids, they created a warm welcoming environment for them. There was laughter and empathy, love and aspiration, people who loved their profession, their school and their community. And their community loved them right back.

They had the statement of their philosophy in the entrance hall and it’s not written in childish language. “We understand behaviour is communication. We believe in co-regulation – that pupils regulate from the adults in their lives. We believe in restoration – not retribution... All of us need one another, always. Trauma informed practice means: We see you, we hear you, we are with you.”

You might ask who these statements are for. The answer is everyone, teachers, parents, carers, who enters the school. They are there if you are scared, distressed, emotional and, even sometimes, angry – words which hold out metaphorical arms to welcome and comfort you ‘why-ever’ you are.

They change lives there, in small ways, often slowly, breaking the inter-generational impact of trauma. The children thrive, as do many of the families. The other sign in the hall says: “When you enter this loving school consider yourself one of the special members of an extraordinary family.”

There is a fish tank in the school entrance – a wee girl watching the fish, calm, transfixed. The colours and the tranquillity of the scene made me sit and watch the fish too. There is no fear in a fish tank, no distress, no anger. Just a moment to pause, reflect and, if inclined, be thankful.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of the Community Justice Scotland

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