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MN Trauma Project aims to increase understanding of how past experiences shape our lives today

“We want to increase the understanding and awareness of the impact of trauma for people who are providing mental health services,” said psychologist Ryan Van Wyk.

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Many people experience trauma, but few — and that includes medical professionals — understand the larger impact it can have on their lives and the lives of others.

Ryan Van Wyk, a psychologist at Park Nicollet Melrose Center, wants to change that. He believes that past trauma lies at the root of many common mental health and addiction issues, and if more people understood that fact and worked to heal trauma, many could live happier, healthier lives.

“My graduate school was great,” Van Wyk said, “but the program gave me very little awareness and understanding of trauma.” Van Wyk completed his post-doctoral work at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, where he was assigned to the women’s treatment unit: “When I first got there, someone told me, ‘You can expect that 75 percent of the women you’re working with will have had a significant history of trauma.’ I realized that even though I had completed a doctor of psychology degree, I wasn’t well prepared to understand trauma and how people heal from it. And I realized I was not alone.”

This realization spurred Van Wyk to action. He explained that research has found that unresolved trauma, which is defined as “an experience or series of experiences that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, make sense of and effectively respond to the situation,” can be the cause of number of serious societal problems, including violence, crime, chronic medical concerns, poor academic performance and mental health and addiction issues. But symptoms of trauma can be treated — and Van Wyk wanted to increase awareness of that fact.

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To do so, Van Wyk, who is also serves in the Minnesota Army National Guard as a behavioral science officer, founded MN Trauma Project, an organization dedicated to increasing awareness of the effects of trauma, creating training opportunities for health and human services professionals and encouraging collaboration between providers and health systems regarding trauma-informed treatment options.  

“We want to increase the understanding and awareness of the impact of trauma for people who are providing mental health services,” he said.

State action encouraged

Van Wyk’s organization also is advocating for Minnesota to become a trauma-informed state, where agencies and professionals operate with an understanding of how trauma affects the brain and that traumatized people deserve compassion and assistance.

State Rep. Rena Moran, D-St. Paul, has been an early advocate for this effort, Van Wyk said.

“Last year Rep. Moran put forward legislation to make Minnesota a trauma-informed state. That would include a focus on increased assessment of adverse childhood experiences and how they affect children.” But MN Trauma Project’s hope would be that the impact of such a declaration would be felt beyond professional circles.

“There is a broad conversation that needs to happen in our state,” Van Wyk said, “not just with providers about how we can help patients therapeutically, but also with the general public about how we can increase our understanding of the role that trauma can play in many things, including addiction. With increased understanding comes increased healing.”

While such an effort would put Minnesota on the leading edge of trauma-healing efforts, the state wouldn’t be the first to declare itself trauma informed: Other states are a few steps ahead, Van Wyk said.

“Oregon recently passed legislation to declare themselves a trauma-informed state. If you look at Oregon’s addiction and mental health services, they have an expectation that people in leadership are expected to be informed about the impact of trauma when they are dealing with the general public. Washington State has also been doing a lot of things around trauma-informed education, and in California, Kaiser Permanente is doing trauma-informed healthcare. There is a slow movement that’s happening around the country.”

Workshops offered

Since it was founded last year, MN Trauma Project has sponsored several workshops and events. All included continuing-education credit opportunities for health-care professionals.  

“The idea is to increase the number of providers in the community who feel they can help people with trauma heal,” Van Wyk said. “These events also provide an opportunity to broaden our scope and bring general awareness to trauma so that people will be able to connect the dots between the experiences they’ve had in their past and the behaviors they are experiencing now.”

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Ryan Van Wyk
MN Trauma Project
Ryan Van Wyk

In his work at Melrose Center, for instance, Van Wyk is often able to help his patients connect the dots between their eating disorders and past trauma.

“Oftentimes a person will come in for eating-disorder treatment and you begin to talk about their history and their family dynamics growing up,” Van Wyk said. “Soon they begin to reveal that they have a strong history of trauma. They didn’t realize the connections between these traumas and their eating disorder. If you can begin to help a person understand and address their underlying issues, they have a much greater chance at success in terms of long-term recovery.”

On May 17, MN Trauma Project, in partnership with NAMI Minnesota, will present “Acknowledging Our Brokenness: An evening of reflection on healing trauma for individuals and the community.” The free event, which will be held at 7 p.m. at Wilder Center Auditorium, 451 Lexington Parkway St. Paul, will feature four short lectures exploring how acknowledging trauma can help heal society. 

Event speakers include:

Hector Matascastillo MSW, LICSW, LSSW; an EMDR trainer employed with the Minneapolis-based veteran’s advocacy organization Veteran Resilience Project. “He’s seeking to offer free EMDR to veterans,” Van Wyk said.  

Rick Terzick, CEO of Cochran Recovery Services. “He does a lot of work around trying to bring trauma-informed principles into the chemical dependency setting,” Van Wyk said. 

Mark Sander, director of school mental health for Hennepin County and Minneapolis Public Schools. “He does a lot of trainings across the state, helping schools become trauma-informed and understanding the ways in which childhood trauma plays a role in academic and behavioral difficulties,” Van Wyk said.

• Laureen Peltier, author and PTSD specialist. “She has completed a memoir about her own process of healing from trauma,” Van Wyk said. “She is a speaker-trainer for NAMI.” 

Van Wyk anticipates that attendance at the May 17 event will strong.

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“We’ve spread our potential audience pretty wide,” he said. “We’re sponsoring this one with NAMI, and their reach includes people who are providers and the broader public. Our hope is that an event like this will be inclusive, so providers and educators and anyone in the general public who has an interest in the ways that trauma impacts people will be interested in coming.”