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New Report Offers Framework for Overcoming Community Trauma

by Ali Goodyear

Many communities working to prevent violence and promote community safety are making progress through comprehensive, multisector actions. Even so, communities that experience high rates of violence continue to be plagued with persistently high rates of trauma, which can be a barrier to successfully putting healing and well-being strategies into action.

Violence and other adverse community experiences contribute to trauma. Though trauma is typically understood as an individual experience, the impacts of trauma extend beyond individuals to the entire community. Within communities, trauma is expressed as a breakdown in trust, social isolation, or deteriorated public spaces. But as with trauma in individuals, untreated trauma in communities results in poor health outcomes.

Disrupted Social Environment, Deteriorated Physical Environment Can Lead to Community Trauma
Community trauma is not merely the aggregate of individuals in a neighborhood who have experienced trauma from exposures to violence. Community trauma results from the cumulative and synergistic impact of regular incidents of institutional, historical, and interpersonal violence, and from continual exposure to structural violence, which prevents people and communities from meeting their basic needs.

The inequality of racism, for example, creates a sense of victimization for individuals who personally experience it, but structural racism reinforces negative community dynamics that causes injury and harm to communities as well. Community environments, social norms, local organizations and groups, and community residents are all affected by structural violence.

“When public housing projects look like prisons, for example,” explains Howard Pinderhughes, a UNITY collaborator and associate professor at the University of California at San Francisco, “the community environment becomes a factor that creates trauma.”* These kinds of environmental and structural conditions create enormous amounts of synergistic trauma, both for individuals and for communities. And part of the nature of complex posttraumatic stress is the perception that there is no way out of the traumatic situation.

Traumatized Communities, Like People, Need to Heal
There is growing understanding that trauma is widespread and has far-reaching impacts. Just as individuals who are exposed to trauma from exposures to violence require healing to promote their wellness and resiliency, communities need to heal from the trauma of interpersonal, structural, historical, and institutional violence. Communities must develop resilience to allow them to function as environments that can promote health, wellness, and individual resiliency among the children, youths, and families who are part of the community.

Community resilience is the ability of a community to recover from and even thrive despite the prevalence of adverse experiences. In the context of community trauma, building resilience means putting the conditions in place in which the community can heal from past trauma and be protected against the impact of future trauma.

Numerous community-level strategies are emerging to address community trauma and promote community healing and resilience. These include strategies that build on indigenous knowledge, expertise, and leadership to produce programs, activities, and outcomes that are culturally relevant and appropriate.

A Report on Strategies to Address and Prevent Trauma
Until recently, there was no basis for understanding how community trauma undermines both individual and community resilience, especially in communities deeply affected by violence, nor what could be done about it. With support from Kaiser Permanente Northern California, Prevention Institute recently released Adverse Community Experiences and Resilience, a report that offers a framework for understanding the relationship between community trauma and violence. Based on interviews with practitioners in communities with high rates of violence, the report describes symptoms of trauma at the community level, as well as strategies to build resilience, heal community trauma, and prevent future trauma. Such strategies include healing circles that provide space for expression; restorative justice programs that shift the norms around conflict resolution; safer public spaces by addressing parks, housing quality, and transportation; and rebuilding social relationships, particularly intergenerational ones.

Too many communities are plagued by trauma from adverse community experiences, including structural violence. While trauma-informed care has become a standard practice in health care and in mental healthcare provision and education, it is imperative that attention goes beyond an emphasis on the treatment of individuals—toward the creation of thriving communities. As violence prevention practitioners across the country implement strategies to create safe and thriving communities, preventing adverse community experiences and bolstering community resilience remain essential components of a comprehensive strategy to prevent violence.

*Substance Prevention Institute. 2013. “Making the Case: Addressing and Preventing Trauma at the Community Level.” Oakland, Calif.

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The National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention Newsletter is prepared under Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Cooperative Agreement No. 2014–MU–MU–K021 with Development Services Group, Inc. The views, opinions, and content of this newsletter do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or policies of OJJDP.