“There is a misconception that people can’t heal from trauma. Healing can happen. There is hope.”
In the wake of traumatic experiences, many individuals find themselves in need of support—a role that Heather Starks and her team are championing at the Counseling Center at JFS Rochester. As the Counseling Center’s clinical director, Starks hopes to curb the continued demand for trauma services in Monroe County with trauma counseling programs. Starks and the JFS team of clinicians help people of all ages, race, faith, or circumstance face and heal from trauma. And with every person she meets, Starks holds onto one important reminder: trauma doesn’t discriminate.
“Trauma can impact anyone,” Starks explains. “Whether it’s a child raised in poverty, a teen who has been bullied online, or a middle-aged person who experienced harassment at the workplace—these can all be traumatic events.” Starks acknowledges that trauma may take place at a single point in time, but the impacts can last a lifetime. Holocaust survivors, for example, with approximately 95 still residing in the Rochester area, exemplify the enduring nature of trauma.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies trauma as a person’s physical, cognitive, and emotional response to an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that’s harmful or life-threatening. It can and often does have lasting effects, particularly if untreated.
Socio-economic and environmental factors can play a role in the likelihood or probability of a person becoming exposed to trauma, like growing up in poverty, in and around domestic violence, in racist, antisemitic, or oppressive communities—or even, “yes, a global pandemic,” Starks says. “People are still recovering from the pandemic. Since the beginning of COVID, there’s been and still is a huge surge for mental health and counseling services, both in Rochester and across the country.”
Trauma Treatment Models
In the area of trauma recovery, there exists a multitude of therapeutic approaches, each tailored to meet the unique needs of individuals as they heal. These models offer empowerment to survivors seeking the support that resonates most deeply with their experiences and aspirations for recovery. Trauma treatment models include:
- Dialectical and Behavior Therapy (DBT) is an evidence-based cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy and can be helpful in developing coping and self-soothing strategies, that enable more effective treatment of trauma. Evidence suggests that DBT can be useful in treating mood disorders and suicidal ideation as well as for changing behavioral patterns such as self-harm and substance use.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) involves moving one’s eyes a specific way while processing traumatic memories to help heal from distressing life experiences.
- Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (TF-CBT) is an evidence-based counselling model that addresses the needs of children and adolescents with post-traumatic stress disorder and other difficulties related to traumatic life events. Children and parents learn new skills to help process thoughts and feelings related to traumatic life events and enhance safety, growth, parenting skills, and family communication.
- Brainspotting, developed by David Grand, has roots in EMDR, somatic experiencing, relational and insight-oriented therapy. It supports the reprocessing of negative experiences and retrains emotional reactions.
- Play Therapy is an evidence based, nationally recognized therapeutic approach for children between the ages of 3 and 12. The therapist uses a wide range of play techniques, including sand play, art therapy, and creative visualization, to help children express their inner experiences and develop positive coping strategies. Through play therapy, children can learn to build stronger relationships, increase their self-esteem, and improve their overall mental health and well-being.
According to the 2022 COVID-19 Practitioner Impact Survey by the American Psychology Association, demand for treatment for trauma- and stressor-related disorders and substance use disorders has grown for the third consecutive year. 46% of practitioners surveyed said they have been unable to meet the increasing demand for treatment, and 72% have longer waitlists than before the pandemic. On average, psychologists reported being contacted by more than 15 potential new patients seeking care each month.
‘Post-COVID stress disorder’ is a term coined by the National Institute of Health (NIH) to identify trauma related to the COVID pandemic. The variety of different groups who meet the criteria for post-COVID stress disorder is an indicator of just how far the pandemic’s impact has spread.
The list of people who meet the criteria for post-COVID stress disorder includes those who:
- suffered from serious COVID-19 illness and potential death
- witnessed others’ suffering and death
- learned about the death or risk of death of a family member or friend
- experienced extreme exposure to details like journalists, first responders, medical examiners, and hospital personnel
The list also includes additional stressors such as social isolation, unemployment, and economic losses, and working from home while caring for children and other family members.
How Family and Caregivers Can Help
Family, friends, and caregivers are often among the first in line to offer help. Being proactive, compassionate, and nurturing can establish trust with someone who has experienced trauma.
Family members and caregivers can support by being active listeners and showing the person that it’s a safe space to talk about their experiences. “It’s a balance of listening without judgment,” Starks says. “They need to know you’re present for them, and sometimes that’s all they need to take the first step to seek professional help.”
Helping might also mean not evaluating their trauma, Starks adds. “What one person might consider a traumatic event may not be what someone else considers to be traumatic, and vice versa. With trauma, perception is reality. As practitioners, we try and lean on each person’s perception of the traumatic event to help them, and not compare one traumatic experience to another.”
For those wary of therapy, Starks suggests starting with trusted guidance from online peer support groups and resources. Organizations such as the Mental Health Association and NAMI Rochester (National Alliance on Mental Illness), offer a rich repository of resources.
Finding Hope and Healing Through Counseling
In Rochester, counseling services like those offered at The Counseling Center at JFS are available for all people to meet with certified professionals and strive to heal from their past experiences. “Our clinicians are trained in clinical and evidence-based models designed to intervene at the developmental stage. Whether you’re 16 years old or 85, we have a team set up to serve the lifespan around trauma,” says Starks. And healing, Starks reminds, is possible.
While understanding trauma is of paramount importance, resilience is equally significant—how individuals pull through and carry on with their lives. “People undergo traumatic events. But the question is, how did they cope?” asks Starks, highlighting the importance of analyzing both trauma and the healing that can follow. “There is a misconception that people can’t heal from trauma. Healing can and does happen. There is hope.”