What is Trauma and Adversity?
Adverse childhood experiences, such as maltreatment, exposure to domestic violence, and parental substance use are traumatic or stressful events that lower an individual’s capacity to cope or adapt to future stressful events. Exposure to adversity or trauma in childhood occurs at alarming rates in the United States. It is estimated that before turning 18, two thirds of all youth will experience one or more adverse childhood experiences. For many, exposure to trauma or adversity is chronic, repetitive, or ongoing and comes from multiple sources—for example, experiencing abuse while also living in poverty. The cumulative effect of such ongoing exposure to trauma in the absence of social supports or other protective factors can result in the prolonged activation of stress-response systems known as toxic stress. Toxic stress can have detrimental effects on learning, behavior, and health well into adulthood.
In communities where food insecurity, unemployment, crime, domestic violence, parenting challenges, and inadequate education and housing are common, trauma and adverse childhood experiences abound, social supports are scarce, and toxic stress results. Trauma manifests at the community level; symptoms appear in the social-cultural, physical/built, and economic environments and are barriers to solutions to promote health, safety, and well-being. As we shift toward understanding trauma as collective, cultural, and intergenerational we also move toward approaches designed to support community healing and resilience that are culturally bound, aim to repair broken social and relational infrastructure, and restore or create economic opportunity. Targeting coordinated programs, interventions, and supports to address community-level trauma, while bolstering and leveraging already existing elements of strength and healing, can play a critical role in creating community resilience that allows its members to come together and thrive.
How Do Trauma and Adversity Affect the Current Workforce?
Trauma and adversity are highly prevalent in the United States and can impact how people cope with stress, how their brains develop, how much risk they have towards developing certain health issues, and present ongoing mental health issues. Mental health is linked to a significant economic impact estimated to cost the US economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. Workplaces that promote mental health and well-being are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and benefit from associated economic gains. For organizations with helping professionals (e.g., healthcare providers, first responders, social workers, attorneys, teachers), bearing witness to other people’s tragedies while also managing their own can take a serious toll on their health and well-being, which is linked to a high risk of experiencing burnout and secondary traumatic stress—a set of symptoms mirroring post-traumatic stress disorder. This leads to high rates of turnover and diminished quality and continuity of care for those served. Most community organizations and systems are not properly equipped to provide the support that is critical to their workforce.