Could a Communal Response to Trauma (CRT) Index measure U.S. well-being?

Given the continual stagnation of the US economy, it’s not surprising the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has become a questionable measure of our country’s worth. But what should take its place?

For some time, the small Buddhist nation of Bhutan has preferred Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an indicator of progress—a reflection of the culture’s preference for emotional well-being over the production of goods and services. In the US, the American Human Development Project has identified several American measures of well-being—health, education, and income—to create a new way of measuring our country’s worth: the Human Development (HD) Index, shown in the map, above, which links to the entry page for the map.

I visited the web site of the American Human Development Project and explored their detailed, interactive maps. The indexes reveal dramatically different levels of well-being across the US, depending on such factors as geographical location,

gender, and cultural group. Whereas the results are not startling—the unfair and unequal distribution of resources and well-being in America is common knowledge—I was struck by the irony that our country is named the United States of America. Looking at the maps generated according to the HD Index, a more apt moniker might by the Alienated States of America, much as divisions between Red and Blue states have implied.

I was also intrigued by one of the conclusions drawn in a news release by the project’s co-directors, Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis:

“The report presents strong evidence that the capabilities a person has going into a crisis—ranging from a financial downturn to a man-made or natural disaster—strongly determine how fast he or she can bounce back.”

I assume these “capabilities” have to do with the level of a person’s education, income, and healthcare. Certainly, having these resources will increase the likelihood that a person recovers from a crisis, or traumatic event. Yet I think these resources have become a significant measure of recovery because our society is more alienated than united—and disasters have become measures of individual resilience rather than community cohesiveness.

I propose another measure of our country’s and citizens’ well-being: the Communal Response to Trauma (CRT) Index, which would be a measure of the communal response to disasters, crises, and other traumatic upheavals, such as sending young people to war.

What would the CRT Index measure? In short, it would assess the society’s commitment to restoring the hope and integrity of all its members following traumatic experiences. This could include evaluating:

  • Psychological openness to the impact of traumatic events. As trauma theorist Judith Herman has pointed out, “Repression, dissociation and denial are phenomena of social as well as individual consciousness.” The CRT could start the communal practice of speaking openly about traumatic events instead of silencing their effects through addictions, dissociation, projection, shame, guilt, and other behaviors, psychological mechanisms, and emotions that often emerge when healing from trauma is not a socially sanctioned activity;
  • The presence of myths, rituals, and legends that model communal responses to trauma. The focus would be on stories and narratives that model compassion, grieving, and support rather than rage, revenge, and denial; and
  • The creation of public spaces devoted to healing trauma’s effects. These spaces would transcend cultural groups, age, gender, sexual orientation, income, education, and all other “measures” of difference. They would support healing through dialogue, community activities, and self-expression, witnessing both trauma’s effects as well as the healing capacity of the human spirit. Historically, places of worship and clinics have served this function. Yet, given the dramatic increase in crises and disasters, no longer can healing trauma be primarily a responsibility of one or two sectors of society.

The best measure of a country’s worth may be its ability to protect citizens from overwhelming stressful experiences. Indeed, the belief that uniting the colonies would provide such protection contributed to the creation of the United States of America. However, given such collective traumas as the impact of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars on veterans and their families, the pervasiveness of social ills such as domestic violence and racism, and continued economic hardship for many (to name just a few of our collective traumas) only the most optimistic believe in the US’s capacity to deal with overwhelming stressful experiences. Perhaps the most we can hope for is a return to a sense that we are the United States of America, which may require an awareness of how traumatic our history has been—as well as our collective need to heal from trauma, which measures like the GDP have unwittingly ignored.

© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.

Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a mental health scholar and registered marriage & family therapist intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.

7 responses

  1. Excellent and inspiring post, Laura. Thank you!
    I would hope that “increased awareness of ACEs” would also include a broader-than-the-10-studied-traumas definition, too.

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    • I so agree! Racism, oppression, poverty–just a few that come to my mind that activate traumatic defenses and which have a lasting impact on both individuals and community. Thanks for your reply, Laura

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    • The Philadelphia ACEs Task Force is developing an ACE survey for people who live in neighborhoods plagued with violence, and plans on adding some additional questions.

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    • I like the idea of trauma-informed schools. I would also like to see psychotherapy training programs more geared toward training for the treatment of trauma. Especially for interns like myself, who start their careers working in community clinics with often traumatized populations, such training is vital for providing appropriate care and support. Thank, Jane–and thanks for this AMAZING website!

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  2. Can this change happen without legislation that leads to more awareness on the impact of those who have been wounded by trauma? Massachusetts now requires Adverse Childhood Experience training for young teachers entering the profession. To allow people to heal and get the support that they deserve, requires knowledge on the impact that Trauma has on an individual and the impact it has on our society. You said it so well, we need to be united on our compassion and outreach to love and support those who carry the wounds from there Trauma.

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    • Hi Jim,

      Programs like the one in Massachusetts are inspiring. They not only create more awareness of ACEs, but also new ways to dialogue about the impact of trauma on our lives. My hope is that as awareness of the link between trauma and well-being increases—not to mention awareness of the enormity of the problem—there will also be more willingness to find creative ways to address trauma’s effects outside institutional boundaries. Many nonwestern cultures and more traditional societies see trauma as a problem for the collective rather than the lone individual. For many of them, “treatment” of trauma involves the reintegration of the community. I think the United States could benefit from a similar attitude. Furthermore, artistic expression is a well-established method for healing trauma, and it can be done in groups and without regard for institutional boundaries. To make such changes however, would mean to go beyond seeing ACEs and trauma as solely mental health issues and begin to witness how trauma impacts society as much as individuals.

      Thank you for your comments,
      Laura

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