Oklahoma can foster healing throughout the state with a cultural shift on how trauma is viewed to develop more understanding and less judgment of behaviors exhibited by a person who has endured adversity.
An Adverse Childhood Experiences panel composed of OSU-Tulsa and OU-Tulsa professors and researchers offered that perspective Wednesday morning during a health care forum hosted by the Tulsa Regional Chamber. The panel presented through the lens of business and how employers and employees can create a trauma-informed workplace to avoid or lessen frustration, job dissatisfaction and turnover.
The state is No. 1 in the U.S. for kids who have experienced ACEs, which are strong predictors of cognitive, behavioral and physical health, and mental wellness problems. ACEs include household dysfunction, neglect, abuse, poverty, crime, substance abuse and mental illness.
“A lot of the safety nets that we need in place in conjunction with core funding to our social services and punitive policies around criminal justice all kind of go together in this bucket that creates an environment that is not as conducive for child and family well-being as we would like,” said Julie Miller-Cribbs, director of OU-Tulsa’s Anne & Henry Zarrow School of Social Work.
Panelists noted many contemporary societal problems that hinder health in Oklahoma. The state incarcerates more women than any other place on Earth. There are high rates of divorce, domestic violence, obesity and illness.
They also highlighted Oklahoma’s traumatic history and how evidence shows that sort of adversity can be passed on to future generations and present health risks. Among those: the Tulsa Race Massacre, the Trail of Tears, the Dust Bowl, the Oklahoma City bombing, and violent and unpredictable weather.
“That’s nothing to be ashamed of; it’s something that happened. Like any trauma-informed person, we say, ‘What happened to our state?’” said Jennifer Hays-Grudo, director for the Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Adversity in Tulsa. “And we actually have a lot of resilience we’ve exhibited. We’re still standing, as they say.”
Frances Wen, OU-Tulsa director of research and behavioral health director, said most people are familiar with someone who shuts down or becomes aggressive or frequently misses work.
Strong evidence points to those as stress responses that begin with adversity in childhood, and understanding that person’s life journey sheds light on their behaviors, she said.
“So when we move from the state of, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’ it opens up many different pathways for recovery, for resilience,” Wen said. “And in the workplace it actually enhances a sense of being very present at work, where work becomes less about labor and more about joy and meaning through intention and purpose.”
Wen said five keys in a work environment are safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment:
• Safety is physical and psychological, such as common areas that are welcoming and where privacy is respected.
• Trustworthiness promotes consistency, clarity and transparency in tasks, operations and decision-making, and there are good interpersonal boundaries that are respectful and professional.
• Choice means individuals are provided with clear and appropriate messages on their rights and responsibilities, but also are recognized and validated for their strengths and skills.
• Collaboration happens when all individuals are meaningfully involved in decision-making and sharing power.
• Empowerment provides an atmosphere in which individuals feel validated and affirmed with each contact.
Time isn’t the healer it’s made out to be in popular sayings. Wen said asking, listening and accepting a person for who they are and what they have been through is, though.
“If time did heal all wounds, we would not see the significant affects on health and well-being that we do throughout life spans — the impact on brain and the impact on our bodies,” Wen said.