Our tolerance for stress can be compared to a glass, according to Dan Jurman, executive director of the state’s Office of Advocacy and Reform.
“You start every day with that glass full and then things happen throughout the course of the day. You have a tough meeting at work, you get caught in traffic, all these different things. But you contain that,” he said. “With COVID-19, everyone’s glass is starting half full before the day even starts. So, we’ll find ourselves, when normal stressors come along, reaching that tolerance limit and then feeling our brain start to shut down. Our brains don’t know how to handle this much stress every single day.”
The pandemic can be considered a trauma. Even after the virus is gone, the memory will stay with us for years to come. For vulnerable populations who may have already experienced trauma, including individuals who have been abused, children in foster care and the eldery, the stressors and social isolation associated with COVID-19 can hit even harder.
In order to protect these groups, the Office of Advocacy and Reform recently launched a volunteer Think Tank, which is comprised of 25 experts representing a diversity of fields and backgrounds who will develop a plan to make Pennsylvania a “trauma-informed” state.
“The people of Pennsylvania are compassionate, thoughtful and resilient. We take care of each other, and that drive to protect our families and our neighbors has never been more obvious than these past few months as we’ve bonded together to fight COVID-19,” said Gov. Tom Wolf. “This group of experts, led by the Office of Advocacy and Reform, will build on this foundation to ensure that local and state government agencies use trauma-informed principles to guide all decisions that affect Pennsylvanians and that we continue to improve our systems that protect vulnerable populations.”
The 25 experts chosen to participate are from urban, suburban and rural communities throughout the commonwealth. One of the experts is Sharon Curran, chief executive officer of Lenape Valley Foundation, which aids Bucks County residents battling mental health, substance abuse or intellectual or developmental challenges.
“The vision for the Trauma Informed PA taskforce is making Pennsylvania is a state where, in the rare cases where prevention is unsuccessful, people who experience trauma feel respected, safe, empowered, and supported to recover,” said Curran. “It is an honor to work with a great group of individuals from across PA on a shared mission. With COVID-19, efforts around decreasing trauma and respecting individual’s experience in this difficult time is more important than ever.”
Child advocate Nicole Yancy said there are several initiatives in the works to help youth living in congregate or foster care, including a mentorship program with social work students from area universities. This program would be aimed at young adults ages 18 to 21 who are preparing to apply to colleges or jobs.
“These students would ideally be matched with a youth where they could offer psychosocial support, emotional support, engagement and information about their education,” Yancy said, adding that it also decreases the loneliness of social isolation during COVID-19.
Regarding senior citizens, long-term care ombudsman Margaret Barajas said her team is advocating for improvements in the long-term care system, all while responding to complaints about quality of life at these facilities. Over the last six weeks, Barajas’ office has provided 2,585 instances of information advocacy to residents, loved ones and staff.
“Our work has primarily focused on visitation rights, especially as it pertains to end-of-life and compassionate visits, but we’ve also been receiving numerous complaints about admission transfer discharge and quality of care,” she said, adding that they’re working to give phones to residents so they can communicate more easily with worried loved ones.
The Think Tank will meet several times over the next few months to collaborate on setting trauma-informed standards that can guide the work of state agencies as well as local government and nonprofit organizations across the commonwealth.
When the first phase is completed, the members of the Think Tank who wish to continue serving will shift to an advisory role, helping OAR build a network of trauma-informed providers who learn from each other, support pilots and innovation, share best practices and push the initial guidelines even further over time as an understanding of brain science and trauma-informed approaches evolves and broadens.
“Our work is more important than ever. Every Pennsylvanian is experiencing trauma and toxic stress right now, affecting the behavioral health of each and every one of us,” said Jurman. “This current crisis has shown us all how vulnerable we are. This is our chance to eliminate stigma and misunderstanding and replace them with knowledge about how the brain works and empathy for each other to fundamentally change the way we approach trauma as a commonwealth.”
Jurman explained that trauma is the cause of so many ills faced in society, including mental health disorders, issues with law enforcement, education and employment.
“I believe we can tie most of them to untreated trauma. It is a core cause and so much of what we spend our time and money on is the treatment of symptoms,” he said. “When we experience trauma over and over again, or toxic stress every day, our brain can start to recognize dangers where there aren’t any, affecting our ability to thrive and sometimes even function in society.”
As the efforts of the Think Tank get underway, Jurman said it’s important the group looks at more than just creating a strategy.
“We can have all the protections, regulations and protocols in the world. But if we don’t have the right culture, if we haven’t set this up as just who we are as a state, then it won’t matter what the plan says,” he said. “Embedding this in our culture and how we think, how we value other humans and how we see each other as people on the same journey as us regardless of our differences, is the core.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org