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Staff knowledge and skills

Shelter counselors play an important role in assisting women to recover from trauma by helping them to understand the effects of trauma; supporting them to achieve safety in their lives; and referring them to appropriate trauma services.

Trauma-informed counseling and therapy require specialized education, training and supervision beyond what is provide by other forms of counseling. Shelters can however, implement various practices to provide services which are sensitive to women’s potential trauma and can help them understand and manage their reactions to past trauma. At a minimum, shelters should ensure staff are trained to understand and respond appropriately to women who have experienced trauma until further specialized support can be obtained. This may involve using techniques such as Psychological First Aid.

Where possible, shelter staff should have the knowledge and skills to facilitate grounding, containment, safe place, journaling and self-soothing exercises, to help equip women with tools to manage their reactions to trauma. All trauma-related services should be provided with supervision and support from professionals specialized in trauma response (Covington, 2003; Matsakis, 1996; Herman, 1997; Haskell, 1997, cited in Alberta Council of Women's Shelters).

Training should enable staff to:

  • Address basic safety issues in women’s lives, by: recognizing and understanding the impacts of social inequity on women; assisting them to obtain basic needs such as housing and food; supporting them to develop a safety plan specific to their individual situations; and maintaining a sense of safety within the shelter environment.
  • Understand trauma reactions.
  • Appropriately communicate with women who have experienced trauma. For example:
    • Learn to recognize and identify trauma reactions.
    • Do not probe into women’s trauma memories or explore them any further than is required to screen for a history of trauma.
    • Allow women who disclose details of their abuse to talk and validate their experiences.
  • Support women to understand and manage their trauma reactions, specifically:
    • Explain trauma as a normal response to an abnormal event and re-frame “symptoms” as “coping strategies” in order to de-stigmatize their experiences. Support women to understand that their responses are attempts to cope with the impacts of the trauma they experienced.
    • Help women recognize that their lives are profoundly shaped by the contexts within which they live. This includes an understanding of the effects of violence, prejudices based on gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexual identity, age, and disabilities, which can contribute to the difficulties women experience.
    • Increase women's sense of control over their lives by familiarizing them with post-traumatic responses and the reasons for these adaptations.
    • Educate women about triggers (cues that activate or retrieve traumatic memory) and support women to identify their own triggers. Triggers may be associated with the original memory and can be experienced as intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, anxiety, or overwhelming rage. When women do not have an understanding of what triggers their trauma memories, they can become hyper-aroused, numb, or afraid. When these triggers interfere with everyday life, women may begin to organize their lives by avoiding anything that they believe will result in uncomfortable feelings.
    • Be knowledgeable of resources in the community that provide therapy for women experiencing trauma.
    • Teach women strategies to manage their trauma reactions (e.g. grounding activities, containment, safe place, journaling and self-soothing exercises).

(Adapted from Haskell, 1997, cited in Alberta Council of Women's Shelters)

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