What Happened to You?: The Value of Seeing Others with a Trauma-Informed Lens

What would it be like if we shifted from asking people, “What’s wrong with you?” to, “What happened to you?” In this week’s episode, the Mental Health Mamas talk about what it means to be a trauma-informed human, why it’s not about the jicama, and a particular story in the news recently which was the exact opposite of a trauma-informed approach.

Notes and Mentions

National Council for Behavioral Health Infographic Echo Training Infographic The Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care (University at Buffalo)

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Serena: Hey Everyone, I’m Serena.

Tina: And I’m Tina and we are the Mental Health Mamas.


Serena: Welcome to No Need to Explain, we are so glad you’re here.

Tina: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Serena: We come to you NOT as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as parents with lived experience who are on a mission to normalize the conversation around mental health.

Tina: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You’ll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website, NoNeedToExplainPodcast.com.

Tina: Serena and I like to be strength based and positive in presenting our podcast and today I am going to ask you to bear with us in getting there. I will begin today’s episode by sharing some commentary on a video that streamed almost everywhere, on news sites, YouTube, you name it. The video shows a split screen of a Michigan judge and a 72 year old cancer patient. English was not his first language and he was clearly struggling to breathe. And just to put a little more context around this, the appearance in court was due to an overgrown yard. As the judge reads the charges including a $100 fine, the man tries to tell her that he is a cancer patient and was unable to care for his yard. It was clear that she was not listening for any kind of understanding. The woman’s name was Alexis Krot, Judge Krot. She says to the man things like, “this is shameful…just shameful” and “your neighbors shouldn’t have to look at that.” She even goes as far as says, “If I could give you jail time on this I would.” I could go on, but I will leave it there. Serena! So much to unpack here.

Serena: Yes! The yelling and shaming. What was that all about? As we heard, this was not a clear case of neglect. It was a complicated story, like most of us with complicated stories, about a man who was unable to take care of his yard for very justifiable health reasons. It makes me wonder about a few things: Are people in general thinking about the person they are speaking with and maybe what they may be experiencing right now or sometime in the past? What is their state of mind at the time of the conversation? And in this particular case, what is the person’s health status?

Tina: Exactly. And in this case those who hold the power and make decisions, like fines and even jail time, I feel like they have a responsibility to see things with a really broad scope. Right? We should be thinking of others. OK…so I have jumped from facts to a little opinion there. I will just call myself out on that. We can agree though that this video was shocking at least and highly disturbing at most. And just to round it out, the judge did publicly apologize since the incident, sort of.

Serena: I think that this particular video grabbed my attention because we know about trauma and traumatic experiences and we think a lot about how humans are treated. Tina and I have done a lot of work around being trauma informed and today we would love to share some of what we have learned and perhaps share tips for seeing people and situations in a more trauma informed way.

Tina: So let’s first define trauma-informed. For those of you who don’t know what this is all about. If you look up trauma-informed you will likely see it associated strictly with kind of the health and human service worker population and their approach to treating clients. We are going to push the envelope a bit mostly because of the Systems of Care we have worked with. Right? It is about ALL of us. And really issue an invitation for all of us to begin to see people with a trauma-informed lens.

Serena: Let’s go ahead and look at the definition of trauma informed care and we will go from there. The University of Buffalo school of social work talks about it like this. “Trauma-Informed Care understands and considers the pervasive nature of trauma and promotes environments of healing and recovery rather than practices and services that may inadvertently re-traumatize. Trauma-Informed Care recognizes the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledges the role trauma may play in an individual’s life- including service staff.”

Tina: So let’s talk a little bit about what this might look like in a healthcare setting, since that’s where we’re starting and we’ll go back to the judge in a little bit.

Serena: OK, so there are five principles of trauma-informed care. First is safety, both physical and emotional. This might look like welcoming waiting rooms, making sure doors are closed during appointments for privacy. And it could also be a secure facility that individuals need to be buzzed into so that people can’t just walk in.

Tina: Mmhm. And the second principle is choice. Individuals are given choice and control. They are well informed about their rights and responsibilities. So this might look like the clinician making sure that the patient has information about how the process might work and feedback is welcome when it comes to what might be working and what might not be working.

Serena: The third principle is Collaboration. This is all about a collaborative relationship with your healthcare provider, whoever that might be. It means that individuals actively participate in their own care.

Tina: The fourth principle is trustworthiness. We know that this principle is super important and expects consistency and appropriate interpersonal boundaries. It will feel like there are respectful and professional boundaries kept by both client and clinician. This means that appointments happen at the time they are supposed to and private information is kept private.

Serena: And the fifth principle of trauma-informed care is Empowerment. Individuals feel heard and validated which then gives them ownership of their treatment and the courage to speak up if something isn’t working or feels unsafe.

Tina: Right! Super important. All five of those. And while this definition focuses on clinicians “treating” people, we are going to focus on how we all can be trauma informed, what that looks like, and moreover the impact it has on those who have experienced trauma. So let’s circle back and take a look at the situation in the video. How might Judge Krot have acted in a more trauma-informed way?

Serena: So I think step one would have been simply to listen. Maybe I’m out of line here, but I think that part of having a court appearance is for the judge to hear and understand the situation, not just to bring someone in to punish or shame them. It seems to me that maybe this was a bit about power over rather than working together to solve a problem.

Tina: Absolutely. Yeah. For sure. And we might be remiss in assuming that all judges are this insensitive. There are many videos out there quite honestly that I have seen with incredibly compassionate judges, right, who are listening and seem incredibly trauma informed.

Serena: Yes, absolutely. Something else that’s missing from this scenario is collaboration. The judge did not seem to be interested in finding a way to solve the problem, only in shaming the man.

Tina: And I guess we are focusing on this incident because we have seen this more than one time in court settings. Families come into court with incredibly complicated trauma histories and they are quite honestly treated badly by judges and lawyers and other people in the system. And it is clear, this is not just about judges. This really is about all of us and how we treat each other as humans. Judges just have a lot more power to make life altering decisions that can either traumatize and/or retraumatize.

Serena: And you said it. This is about ALL of us.

Tina: Yeah, so let’s look at some of the statistics on that note about trauma in the US and it’s from the National Council for Behavioral Health: 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. That’s 223.4 million people.

In public behavioral health, over 90% of clients have experienced trauma. Trauma is a risk factor in nearly all behavioral health and substance use disorders. That is A LOT of people. Not surprising and honestly I am a bit skeptical about the possibility of underreporting.

Serena: Yeah. And reflecting back on past episodes,trauma is defined as an emotional response to any disturbing event and that is all over the board from something that happens to you personally in your home or school, it could include witnessing accidents or violence and cultural, intergenerational and historical trauma as well. There are so many traumas people experience. We can’t name them all. We will include some links to great resources on trauma in our notes and on our website.

Tina: Yeah and this is so incredibly prevalent. Is that fair?

Serena: That is totally fair. Yes. We have established that trauma is prevalent and reasonably common. So let’s explore a bit about the value of seeing other humans through this trauma informed lens. What does that even mean anyway? We’ve talked about it in a healthcare setting so now let’s think about it in our day-to-day lives just interacting with other humans.

Tina: When I was researching this episode, I came across this awesome infographic. Think of it as shifting perspectives. The one that stood out to me as a good example was the “Us vs Them” and the “we are all in this together” language. Another phrase we often use is to “stay curious about what you might not know” about someone.

Serena: Yes! In our episode, it is called the Walking Story, it’s in our first season. It’s episode 25 if you want to go back and check it out. We talk about staying curious about what we don’t know. And that is hard for our brains. So here is a scenario, you are walking by someone and they are talking to themselves. We could tell ourselves a whole lot of stories about that person, right? But if we stay curious about what we don’t know, it’s easier to stay away from that negativity and judgment. But we have to be intentional about that.

Tina: We do. Our brains can go a little rogue sometimes and so we have to be intentional. I will use another example that many of us have experienced and one where I have really shifted my perspective in the last 10 years for sure. The scenario goes something like this: I am at the check out in the grocery and the cashier is very snippy and asking me, “What on earth is in the produce bag?” Instead of getting angry myself (which may have happened in the past), instead, I take a breath, politely answer the question and then wonder what happened to that person because it clearly wasn’t about the jicama.

Serena: It’s not about the jicama! Now you might be thinking, why should I treat this person kindly when they haven’t been kind to me? And I would respond…does it feel good to snap back? Is that how you want to feel as you’re leaving the store?

Tina: Absolutely! I so often say that it takes WAY much more energy to feed into the negativity than to stay positive and not in a fake way, for sure. Being positive and avoiding the negativity gives me energy! And I guess I would further say that I really try intentionally to engage with a cashier (especially during the pandemic) by asking like, “How’s your day going?” or how are they today just begin on kind of a nice note.

Serena: Yeah. I think that’s a great strategy and I ca imagine it feels good to you and the person you’re interacting with. One of my favorite quotes is, “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

Tina: I love that quote too Serena. And it really sums up what we are trying to say today about being trauma informed. If we start by assuming that we know nothing about the person, it makes it a little easier for our brains to stay in that neutral place. And let’s talk a little bit about the question that is part of our title. That …what’s wrong with you vs what happened to you?

Serena: I think perhaps we have all experienced someone saying to us, “What’s wrong with you?” and I cannot think of a single example or situation in which that question would feel good.

Tina: Not even one! No! Instead, if we put that curious hat on and ask “What happened to you?” Even if we don’t say it out loud, even in our heads. That seems so much more helpful. And in fact, in our work with schools, we found that when administrators pull kids into the office for “bad behavior”, shifting the question from “what is wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?” also shifts that kid's response. Again from an unhelpful question to one that allows kind of for a feeling of safety, trust, choice, collaboration and empowerment. We might sum that up as saying that the administrator, well we could say they are trauma informed, and we could say that they actually care enough about that child to ask what happened.

Serena: Absolutely. And we would like to acknowledge that approaching others in a trauma-informed way is not always easy, especially when you are feeling personally wronged in some way, but we promise, we do, that if you can take that step back and ask what happened, the outcome will be better for everyone.

Tina: Yeah. It’s kind of circling back to that if we know our brain does these things then we can maybe take that pause and get it to a place where we know we can respond. Again, let’s circle back to the scenario with the Judge. If we are to be truly trauma informed humans, we need to ask the same question of that judge, right? What happened to her to cause her to react in that over the top way?

Serena: Yeah, what happened to her? This is about ALL of us and the world could certainly use more kindness every day.

Tina: More kindness! Let’s go there. So podcast friends, we are, as always, grateful for all of you listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple podcasts, leave us a review, subscribe and please share with others. You will find lots more content on our website NoNeedtoExplainPodcast.com. And shout out to Serena, she is on all of the socials! So go there. See all of the awesome things she puts out there.

Serena: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.

Tina: Thanks again for listening!

Serena: Bye!