Build relationships before you need them – the role of self-healing communities.

Over the last decade KCA has focused its efforts on supporting the children’s services workforce to use its knowledge and experience of attachment aware and trauma informed practice to transform the lives of vulnerable children and their families. Indeed, thousands of practitioners have embedded Five to Thrive in their practice, helping practitioners and parents to understand the neuroscience of connected relationships.

Increasingly, we have been supporting local authorities on wider system change projects, that sees trauma informed practice spread beyond educational settings and into early help, social care and neighbourhood policing. A great example can be found in Wiltshire, where the local authority has been the innovator in sharing this knowledge base and practice across the workforce, showing how skills and experience spread both intentionally through training programmes and organically through word of mouth and the passion and enthusiasm of practitioners.

Such systemwide initiatives help to move far beyond training a small number of professionals, who become specialists in the topic, through to mobilising a collective of people who develop a shared set of values and work together to actively create a culture where healing and recovery is possible. In taking a systemwide approach we can give a clear message that everyone is needed, from frontline staff to leadership, all sharing the same principles, values, processes and co-creating a culture together that prevents re-traumatisation, where support and relationships are prioritised and nurtured.

When we start to see that it’s everyone’s responsibility to act with care and compassion, we build a culture of trust and safety and that feels good for us all. It’s through these relationships we find ourselves feeling personally safer to reveal our own vulnerabilities, which in turn helps us recognise that we are as vulnerable as those we seek to help – we are all human beings who ultimately need each other.

It is well documented in the field of neuroscience and neurobiology that people need people to stay well, something which is often referred to as co-regulation, a subtle process of regulating each other's emotional and physiological states. Ultimately, people need human connection to survive and thrive. Through working together humans have survived extreme adversity by caring for and helping each other - we are biologically wired to be in community. That said, most of us have been brought up and educated to be independent, perhaps what we really needed to be is interdependent, where we have close networks to call on for support and care. At our core we are an interdependent species that relies on collaboration with others.

The reason why this is so important is because our communities hold the solutions for sustaining a trauma informed approach. Local organisations, like schools and local care services, play a vital role, but they need those in the wider system to also adopt the same principles and values too. Whilst growing number of local authorities are taking this systemwide approach, the role of the community itself can be overlooked. For many us, the majority of our meaningful relationships don’t exist in a professional context, but rather an informal one within the community. It is this invisible network of support that keeps us well.

As Laura Porter, a community leadership and development teacher; Kimberly Martin, a professor of anthropology; and Rob Anda, a public health specialist and co-originator of the original ACEs studies wrote:

“Most of us do not seek healing or recovery through formal services. We prefer to turn to one another. We rely on a circle of trustworthy people for help and support. The size, availability and effectiveness of that circle of support depends on the health, functionality and capacity of the community.”

Their study, entitled ‘Self-healing Communities’ revealed the importance of focusing on community to enhance prevention, healing and resilience through mobilising community led action. They observed that through catalysing the community to do things together, residents built relationships that helped them recover from adversity and trauma.

Richard Audsley from Adams State University discovered similar findings in his research on how communities recover from collective trauma. He identified that “One of the most notable findings following terrorism and immense psychosocial trauma is that family, community, and social network supports are the most significant factors in promoting recovery and preventing long-term mental health difficulties.”

As more evidence emerges from the trauma informed field, the importance of human connection and building relationships is clear: they offer protective and compensatory experiences (PACES) which create the conditions for all of us to live well. To coin a phrase from my friend Jeff Yost from the Nebraska Community Foundation “build relationships before you need them”.

As we reflect on these thoughts, perhaps we also need to be asking what is our role in stimulating these community relationships? And how do we discern when our help is needed? And when do we step back to enable community members to support each other and create that interdependence that allows those informal relationships to emerge?

These are not easy questions, but to find sustainable solutions that help everyone to flourish we need to move toward a community-wide understanding of trauma, so we no longer need to rely on that small group of trauma informed professionals to meet everyone’s emotional needs.

Everyone really does mean everyone.

Further Reading

Porter L, Martin K, Anda R (2016) Self-Healing Communities. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Audsley, R (2018) Responding to Collective Trauma Through Community Connectedness, Adams State University