Trauma-informed care within academic settings

As awareness of trauma and its effects on individuals grows, Imogen Perkins delves into what it means to be trauma-informed, and how its five principles could look within an academic setting.

Imogen Perkins's avatar
De Montfort University
19 Sep 2023
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • Additional Links
  • More on this topic
bookmark plus
A hand resting on a shoulder in a display of support and care

You may also like

A trauma-sensitive approach to teaching and learning
4 minute read
Advice on taking a trauma sensitive approach to teaching

Trauma is a term frequently used in health and social care contexts, and it has increasingly made its way into everyday conversations. It is not unlikely that, while browsing social media, you will encounter posts in which individuals share their experiences related to mental health, including trauma. As the use of the word becomes more common, it is important that people understand the meaning of trauma, as well as what it means to be trauma-informed.

There are various types of trauma that affect the brain and our development in diverse ways.

1. Acute trauma: Occurs due to a single event, such as a natural disaster.

2. Chronic trauma: Arises from situations that are prolonged and repetitive, such as chronic illness, exposure to violence or living in long-term poverty.

3. Complex or developmental trauma: Involves any form of abuse or neglect experienced during upbringing, exposure to domestic violence and situations categorised as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), among others.

This is why adopting a trauma-informed approach is essential for the well-being of both students and staff. We can never truly comprehend what someone has gone through without them explicitly sharing, and this can be challenging for trauma survivors.

So how can academic settings embrace the five principles that underlie trauma-informed care?

Safety: Safety is not only a facet of trauma-informed care, but also a fundamental aspect of human needs, as outlined in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Prioritising the emotional and physical safety of both staff and students is essential for productive work within academia. This could manifest as respecting and protecting staff break times, and ensuring students have easy access to campus security and well-being teams to address concerns about their mental health or personal safety.

Trustworthiness: The adage “honesty is the best policy” holds true when considering the significance of trustworthiness in trauma-informed care. Establishing appropriate boundaries within universities for both staff and students fosters trust in processes and individuals. Staff should feel confident approaching their managers, free from judgement or toxic work environments such as gossiping cultures. Building trust among students involves simple acts of honesty, such as being transparent about availability. For example, if a student requests an appointment for tomorrow, but scheduling isn’t possible until next week, a trauma-informed approach advocates for honest communication rather than making unfulfillable promises.

Choice: Granting individuals some degree of control over their environment can contribute significantly to a trauma-informed approach. Staff could be allowed to exercise autonomy over scheduling their diaries and appointments. Similarly, students could benefit from being offered choice over the nature of the assignments or assessments they complete. For instance, making students aware that alternative assessment methods are available besides group work would accommodate those who struggle with anxiety and prefer one-on-one assessments.

Collaboration: Collaboration is pivotal in maintaining a trauma-informed approach. Those who have experienced trauma often feel a loss of personal power. Recognising the importance of shared power and understanding that working collectively often yields optimal results for both students and staff is crucial. Regular supervision sessions for staff to review goals and aspirations are essential. Students can benefit from similar reviews, including regular check-ins with personal tutors. Additionally, facilitating collaboration through roles like course representatives, where student voices are heard, reinforces this principle.

Empowerment: The ability to make choices, leverage existing strengths and build resilience is integral to recovery for trauma survivors and represents the final vital principle of being trauma-informed. In academic settings, staff empowerment can involve opportunities to enhance skills and explore new professional avenues. Similarly, students can be empowered by assistance in taking ownership of the transition that comes with attending university. Providing training sessions on budgeting, practice in life skills such as effective communication and assertiveness, and placement opportunities to gain real-world experience can all contribute to student empowerment.

Understanding trauma and embracing trauma-informed care principles can have a transformative impact on the well-being of individuals and the wider academic community. As we navigate the complexities of human experiences, integrating these principles creates an environment of support, understanding and growth.

Imogen Perkins is a mental health intervention officer and author at the De Montfort University.

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site