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Culturally meaningful mind-body-spirit approaches address childhood, historic trauma

We must move beyond the “trauma-informed” lens to embrace trauma healing practices in our daily lives.

Suzanne Koepplinger

Oprah Winfrey’s recent “60 Minutes” interview with Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., and founder of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas, was a watershed moment. When Dr. Perry spoke about the impact of childhood trauma on the developing brain – one of the highest-profile features of this issue in the mainstream media – it was truly a welcome development.

Dr. Perry spoke of how children are much more sensitive than adults to violence and abuse wherever it occurs, and Oprah shared her perspective on surviving childhood abuse. The episode offered insight into how to reduce the developmental impact of toxic stress, such as the importance of positive relationships and access to therapy.

But there is so much more to this issue that was not reported by “60 Minutes,” including the solutions we are finding to prevent or reduce childhood trauma – and it’s happening right here, right now, in our community.

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According to the Minnesota Department of Health’s 2013 Health Disparities report, adverse childhood experiences “cause changes in the architecture of the brain that affect everything from physical growth to emotional development to the capacity to make healthy decisions as an adult.” Moreover, multiple adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, such as growing up with domestic violence, mental illness or substance abuse in the home, increase the risk of alcoholism, depression, liver disease, interpersonal violence and suicide.

Tracking positive outcomes

Over the past three years, the Catalyst Initiative, previously at the George Family Foundation and now at The Minneapolis Foundation, has been tracking positive outcomes from its investment in community-based, culturally meaningful healing practices in response to both childhood and historic trauma.

Here’s what we have found:

  • We all have the innate capacity to heal, but this requires intentionality and support. Access to culturally meaningful mind, body and spirit practices that are community led is fundamental.
  • There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that trauma lives in the mind, body and spirit; therefore the healing must take place in the mind, body and spirit.
  • We need to invest in building cultures of healing in the community and provide consistent, ongoing support; regular opportunities to train and try new tools; share what works – and gently shift social norms. Change takes time.

Catalyst nurtures our innate power to heal and be well through two primary approaches. The first is seeing self-care as primary care: We invest in disease prevention, stress management and normalizing healthy behaviors. The second is supporting culturally meaningful trauma healing practices that include access to healers and trainers skilled in reducing the impact of trauma.

Excellent examples are already at work in our community:

  • Mind Body Medicine in Indian Country addresses historic trauma using a blend of traditional healing and evidence-based practice.
  • The youth-led Healing Justice Network gives young people tools and a platform to teach vibrant, positive messaging.
  • The Islamic Mind Body Toolkit offers faith-based, intercultural healing.
  • An emerging Community Resiliency Project is showing promise to prevent opioid/drug addiction.

Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., writes in “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” (2014) that sharing the stories of trauma lessen the sense of isolation so prevalent in people who have suffered childhood abuse, but finding ways to physically release the trauma effects stored in our bodies is crucial to the healing process. Oprah herself commented on the full human impact of trauma, noting the need to “fix the hole in the soul, the thing where the wounds started.”

Indeed, as our nation grapples with a growing opioid crisis, it seems reasonable to assume there may be links between those drawn toward pain medication as an escape and the lingering, unrecognized impact of early childhood trauma or toxic stress.

Little support from current systems

Whether it is prayer, meditation, acupuncture, yoga or ceremony, methods that have meaning and promote healing should be both accessible and affordable. Yet our current systems provide little or no financial support for these mind/body/spirit healing practices.

We need to build resilience and healing into our daily lives, not only as a preventive strategy to promote wellbeing but also as a response to health, social and economic gaps that may be linked to adverse childhood experiences. We must move beyond the “trauma-informed” lens to embrace trauma healing practices in our daily lives.

The strong causal link between historic and individual trauma and poor overall health outcomes cannot be ignored. The work of scientists like Dr. Perry, Dr. Van Der Kolk and many others support the need to invest in building cultures of healing. Normalizing self-care as primary care and embedding culturally meaningful trauma healing practices in community has the potential to not only “fix the hole in the soul” but also to improve health, education, employment and relationship outcomes in our communities.

We have the power and tools right here in our community to help ensure that everyone stays strong – starting right now.

Suzanne Koepplinger has been the director of the Catalyst Initiative since 2014. Founded by the George Family Foundation, Catalyst is now part of The Minneapolis Foundation.


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