Echo Parenting & Education rides the trauma wave

Changing the Paradigm keynote speakers Dr. Janina Fisher and Ruth Beaglehole, Founder of Echo Parenting & Education

Sometimes we don’t notice when history is being made. We ride a wave of logical progression and don’t even notice when it peaks – that snapshot moment when we are lifted, arms outstretched, into the waiting air and remain suspended for one glorious second before the wave breaks and pushes powerfully to shore.

What the heck am I talking about? Our Changing the Paradigm conference. Last month, 120 participants, 22 speakers and a slew of volunteers gathered at The California Endowment for our two-day conference on developmental trauma. Everything went off perfectly. The evaluations were glowing (apart from the person who wanted avocado on the lunchtime sandwiches – I guess you can’t please everyone). But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what some of the speakers had to say:

“It was a deep honor and a pleasure to be part of such a wonderful and inspiring exchange of hearts, minds and souls. You gave me and so many of us the opportunity to increase understanding about the critical topic of trauma, especially as it relates to children and nonviolence. The conference really called on its attendees to take bold action, and I hope that we, as speakers provided some tools to continue the work of healing trauma and ending the cycle of violence that perpetrates and perpetuates developmental trauma.” — Melissa Susman, therapist.

Echo staff member Jessica LeTarte greets speakers Peggie Reyna and Laura Ripplinger, Peace Over Violence.

“Congratulations to your amazing team! We learned, we cried, we healed, we cheered, and left inspired by the community of people at the center of this movement! Thank you for letting us be a part of it. We are already looking forward to next year!” — Olivia Piacenza, A Window Between Worlds.

“I have presented at many, many… maybe too many (!) conferences over the years, and NEVER have I felt so well taken care of… from beginning to end. While I hadn’t much of a clue, when first invited to present, about the audience and what Echo Parenting was about, I do now and it is a fabulously meaningful and worthwhile effort that you have undertaken. I applaud you and admire all that you represent. Thank you for asking me to be one cog in a magnificent wheel for change for children and for their parents.” — Beth Kalish, LAISPS – Infant, Early Childhood, & Parent Psychotherapy Program.

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Trying to make LA schools less toxic is hit-and-miss; relatively few students receive care they need

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The Peacemakers of Harmony Elementary School in Los Angeles, CA.

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For millions of troubled children across the country, schools have been toxic places. That’s not just because many schools don’t control bullying by students or teachers, but because they enforce arbitrary and discriminatory zero tolerance school discipline policies, such as suspensions for “willful defiance”. Many also ignore the kids who sit in the back of the room and don’t engage – the ones called “lazy” or “unmotivated” – and who are likely to drop out of school.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which banned suspensions for willful defiance last May, the CBITS program (pronounced SEE-bits), aims to find and help troubled students before their reactions to their own trauma trigger a punitive response from their school environment, including a teacher or principal.

Gabriella Garcia’s son attended Harmony Elementary School during the 2012-2013 school year. The school has 730 children in kindergarten through fifth grade. She says without CBITS, she would have lost custody of him and her other two children. “But for some reason,” she says, “I let him (her son) take that test.”

“That test” is a questionnaire given to some of the fifth-grade students at the school, which is located in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood south of downtown Los Angeles.

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Every semester, Lauren Maher, a psychiatric social worker, gives all the children in Harmony’s fifth grade a brightly colored flyer to take home. It asks the parent to give permission for her or his child to fill out a questionnaire about events the child may have experienced in, or away from, school. “Has anyone close to you died?” “Have you yourself been slapped, punched, or hit by someone?” “Have you had trouble concentrating (for example, losing track of a story on television, forgetting what you read, not paying attention in class)?” are three of the 45 questions.

Garcia’s son was one of a small group of students whose answers on the questionnaire, as well as his grades and behavior, were showing signs that he was suffering trauma. He joined one of the two groups, each with eight students that met once a week for 10 weeks at the school. In the group, the students don’t

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In mental illness, let’s go beyond nature v. nurture to look at what interferes with the brain’s function

AmindbodyBased on her ethnographic study of psychiatric residency programs, anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann concluded psychiatry is “of two minds”: one “mind” emphasizes the role of neurochemistry, while the other “mind” places more importance on the context of our suffering, including relationships past and present.

Identifying the origins of mental illness likely depends on both interpretations. There is an undeniable organic component to mental illness, just as psychological and social conditions are inexorably linked to mental well-being. But like the Democrats and Republicans, these two approaches are often pitted against one another, often leading to that old, tiresome nature versus nurture debate.

Unfortunately, in a world of limited resources, including limited time, the implicit guiding question — Where should we place our focus? — naturally divides our attention. Is it helpful to explore genes and neurobiology in our efforts to reach best outcomes? Or is it better to explore the social conditions that contribute to mental disorders? Unfortunately, much like U.S. politics, the treatment of mental illness often is derailed when such questions become fodder for polarizing arguments that serves allegiances and professional agendas more than persons in the throes of mental suffering.

Instead of worrying if nature is more influential than nurture, perhaps it would be more helpful to identify what counts as optimal functioning for the brain. Perhaps we could then focus on the value of combining information, thus leading to better outcomes rather than increased competition (and often, market share). I think the significance of function often gets overlooked because we aren’t adept at looking at any issues from multiple levels. Although the term biopsychosocial was coined to address the issue of scale and focus in the treatment of mental illness, it often feels piecemeal in approach.

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Trauma-informed psychotherapy puts the body – and love – back in mental healthcare

AloveFor the past 50 years, psychotherapy has taken a back seat to biomedical psychiatry, largely due to reliance on medications for the treatment of mental disorders. Yet clinical evidence increasingly points to chronic, unresolved traumatic stress as the source of many — if not most — mental disorders. Furthermore, longitudinal analyses show continued use of psychotropic medications is bad for the body, even causing chronic diseases. Granted, medications can stabilize a body wracked by recurrent distress, but such an approach is hardly a long-term cure. According to psychiatrist and trauma specialist Bessel Van der Kolk, “dramatic advances in pharmacotherapy have helped enormously to control some of the neurochemical abnormalities caused by trauma, but they obviously are not capable of correcting the imbalance.” To correct the “imbalance” often requires learning to inhabit one’s body and relationships in new ways.

Fortunately, the psychotherapeutic treatment of psychological trauma has advanced significantly the past several decades. In part, this is due to scientific discoveries of how the body and relationships naturally defend against traumatic stress. In particular, trauma-informed psychotherapies that draw from neuroscience and attachment studies are more holistic and scientifically based than ever before, although they often support the intuitions held by originators of psychotherapy such as Pierre Janet, Sigmund Freud, and C. G. Jung.

The neurobiology of trauma

Pierre Janet was the first to recognize how the body responds to present events as if past traumas were recurring — what today we call flashbacks. He observed patients

“continuing the action, or rather the attempt at action, which began when the [traumatic event] happened, and they exhaust themselves in these everlasting recommencements.”

Today we know the neurobiological reasons for flashbacks. Unlike narrative memories that seamlessly integrate

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Trauma nation: Has the U.S. become a pharmacracy?

Photo of American flag above graffiti-covered wall.

Medicine is where hope is alive and well in America. During the last 50 years, due to rapid advances in microbiology, many persons who once might have died prematurely, or suffered debilitating diseases or disorders, instead enjoy productive lives, albeit often with chronic illnesses to manage. Through its near-miracle successes, the field has engendered the belief that if we delve deeply enough into the secrets of the human genome (and other microscopic aspects of our bodies) we will eventually escape many afflictions and much suffering — an attitude that seems similar to

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Terrifying children into a life of asthma

Credit: Cellular Image/Flickr

Credit: Cellular Image/Flickr

Sometimes the clearest indicator of a family’s dysfunction is, unfortunately, illness in its children. Like the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, it’s the children who are most susceptible to the toxicity of family addiction and dysfunction. Hurt people hurt people, and literally scare the life out of little kids.

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The brain of a serial killer…is a story about child abuse

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There are three interesting aspects of this infographic about the brains of serial killers:

  • The acknowledged link to high levels of childhood trauma.
  • That brain scans of psychopaths are similar to others who exhibit evidence of behaviors besides rage and violence, such as overeating, drinking too much, inappropriate sex and workaholism. Rage, violence and the other behaviors are all  coping skills to deal with childhood adversity.
  • That the experts mentioned in the infographic are coming around to the conclusions from epidemiological research in the CDC’s ACE Study, and from neurobiological research about the effects of toxic stress on children’s brains.

brain2You can find the entire infographic here. There’s one part that’s not accurate  – the concept of a warrior gene. Epigenetics research shows that the social environment turns our genes on and off, so any behavior is likely to be a result of an interplay among many genes and neurodevelopment.

And who put this infographic together? Bestcounselingdegrees.net. Really.

At Cherokee Point Elementary, kids don’t conform to school; school conforms to kids

Kids run to greet Godwin Higa, principal of Cherokee Point Elementary School, during lunch.

Kids run to greet Godwin Higa, principal of Cherokee Point Elementary School, during lunch.

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What does ANY of the following POSSIBLY have to do with school discipline?

  • Every day at 7:40 a.m., all of the school’s 570 children start their day by eating a free breakfast. In their classrooms. With their classmates.
  • Every other week, the San Diego Food Bank drops off 4,000 pounds of fruits or vegetables for families of students, and another 12,000 pounds every month for the community. Nothing goes to waste.

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A theory of change from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child

Frontiers of Innovation, part of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, was launched in May 2011 at a meeting of 65 researchers and policymakers from diverse fields. They came with “minds wide open” to bridge their silos and developcreative approaches to help the most vulnerable children in society. This network has grown to more than 400 people.

The video provides a 5-minute look at the Frontiers of Innovation community’s goal of focusing on adults and strengthening communities to build a strong foundation for children’s lives. Here’s a slideshow that reviews the first year of work of this community.

Trauma past and present, and how to move on from trauma in the future

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Here are three articles that might be of interest, from separate parts of the country, but interconnected in the growing awareness of how to understand, treat and prevent trauma. The first story looks at how those who were traumatized passed their trauma on to their children. The second story looks at how children who have experienced adversity aren’t really incurable — people just haven’t figured out how to help them. And the third offers some ways to build resilience.

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