Guest Post: Trauma-Informed Relief Society Teaching
Guest Post by Amy. Human Being. Mother of Two. Deep Thinker. Granddaughter of a Philosopher..
Connecting the Dots: “Trauma”, “Informed” and “Relief Society Teacher”
I have victoriously entered into/got dragged kicking and screaming into a space in my life where I have done a lot of thinking about “trauma” and “informed” and “faith and being a Mormon” while formerly holding the calling of Relief Society teacher.
The word “trauma” is used to cover the whole range of hurt that happens between people interacting with each other. The incomplete words I have for it include multi-generational, societal hurts, and acts of bullying and/or abuse on the playground or in the home. This also covers deliberate acts of control to traumatize an individual or group of people and accidental acts to traumatize an individual or group of people. Trauma is connected to control and hurt. I have learned about how I minimized the trauma I felt from past experiences, and how I caused trauma by not understanding the unexplained and unintended consequences of my actions. I know enough now about trauma to want to and make specific changes to my world view.
My new favorite word is “informed”. It’s a way to turn a description into a prescription. For example, I was in a minor car accident last year that still sets off an adrenaline reaction whenever I drive anywhere. Sometimes I drive places to help my body get used to driving again without setting off an adrenaline rush. Sometimes I reschedule driving places to make sure that I am driving in the daylight or in the best weather condition to minimize my body’s reaction. In any case, the description is “heightened anxiety during driving” and the prescription is tailored to/informed by changing my decisions where/when I drive to what is the best balance I can make. So, I am a “Post Car-Accident Informed Driver”.
Most people do not connect trauma or trauma-informed with their callings at church. We don’t talk about trauma at church. However, when it comes up, it comes up as a “leadership concern” for the Bishop (representing the Elders group), the Relief Society President, the Primary President, or the YM/YW Presidents.
On a person-to -person level, D&C 121 is recited as a mantra against unrighteous dominion/control/abuse with some very general, very subjective guidelines on how to deal with those traumatized by individuals who experienced unrighteous dominion/control/abuse. On a historical organizational level, the conversation is about fleeing Nauvoo and the complex relationship the LDS church had with the federal government.
Chieko Okazaki was a pioneer in the area of leadership talking specifically about trauma at church. All of her talks are designed to do this – to create space for everyone in a diverse, non-traumatic, calming way. She talked about abuse in families and took seriously that there were sisters in her care that were being abused. She spoke of hard choices, especially inviting the Savior into those hard spaces. She spoke of balance, of preserving mental health while serving others.
By learning more about trauma, I learned more about how I was accidentally causing trauma, and not taking into account the probable traumas of others around me in my calling as a Relief Society teacher.
I Didn’t Know What I Thought I Knew
My default assumptions was that every sister in Relief Society – every sister in that meeting was safe and was a believer in Jesus Christ and that we were on the same “covenant path”, that most of their problems came from depression, unwise choices like substance abuse in regards to family members or general living. Everything else wasn’t really talked about, and minimized as misunderstandings. Even with a family history of wide-spread substance abuse and other abuses, and chronic major depression, I didn’t get it.
I. Was. So. Wrong.
The advocacy group National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that “1 in 5 adults” experience mental health issues – and “1 in 20 adults” is experiencing a serious mental health challenge. Also, 19% of those individuals are dealing with Anxiety Disorders. So, when I was teaching Relief Society with 20 sisters in the room, at least 3 of them (besides me) were dealing with mental health stuff at that point in time and 1 of them was likely in serious trouble. Since I was the one with the anxiety, they might have been spared that at least.
We understand now that intimate partner violence is about power and control. The National Coalition against Domestic Violence reports these statistics: 1 in 3 women or 1 in 4 women (with a greater percent of these sisters being between the age of 18 and 24 years of age) have experienced some form of physical violence that may lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of my 20 sisters in Relief Society, 6-7 of them had lived this experience on some level, and 5 of those sisters carry trauma from it into my teaching space. These 6-7 sisters may or may not be the 1- 5 adults mentioned as having mental health challenges.
When I was a trauma-informed Relief Society teacher, my default assumption that the sisters were safe changed to understand that there were sisters who weren’t safe – there was a lot going on in the lives of these sisters. That some of it involved mental health and was connected directly or indirectly to power and control and worth on fundamental levels.
My job as their teacher was to provide a 35-40 minute lesson that spiritually uplifted them and prepared them for the week. I could not do my job without taking into account that the basic need for safety and security” for those 6 to 12 sisters experiencing mental challenges and trauma from abuse became part of the framework of my lesson. My charge as a Relief Society teacher meant creating expansive safe spaces for mental, emotional, and faith topics, and to avoid putting more pressure, more guilt, and more shame on these precious sisters.
I was also creating a safe space for me. I was going through my faith transition and I needed to make space for myself in the room as their teacher. An equally valuable side benefit was forcefully learning that everyone, including me, was on their own faith journey, and that what I was doing for me was helpful for other sisters too. Some of the things that were hurtful/thought-provoking for me were things that I figured were hurtful for them, and we could shift the conversation away from those topics sometimes and/or mourn and comfort each other together. There were believing sisters who made connective statements, who talked about faith in ways that I could not. We leaned on each other to create a divine patch of space and time.
Start with The Easy Circumstances
Start with the general needs, the easy circumstances in getting an understanding of the general demographics of an area, the standard get-to-know-you routine. Also, other sources of information can be used to get a sense of who’s married (or not), how many kid(s) a sister has, what kinds of employment and education levels the sisters have obtained, who is related to whom in the community, how long they have lived there, and their conversion story.
Be Informed About Unknown Circumstances Among the Sisters
It’s harder to create a space for the unknown circumstances; we won’t necessarily know which sisters have been traumatized, experienced abuse, been neglected or abandoned, are in a faith transition of some sort, or experienced mental health challenges. We won’t know which sisters are thinking about their orientation in a different way. We won’t necessarily know which sisters are struggling to find their worth in the cultural identity of “sister”. But we don’t have to know this in creating space for their circumstances – we can trust that the circumstance is there and become informed in ways to help them in a general sense.
In the case of mental health challenges and abuse, the numbers speak for themselves in suggesting that becoming more trauma-informed in our lives and in our callings will connect us to each other in valuable, relationship-building ways.
Developmental Process and “The Best Laid Plans”
It took years of education, counseling, professional consults to accurately create prescriptions and accommodations for different aspects of my life. I learned from firsthand experience that research, thinking, sitting with and then implementing a potential solution or accommodation is a process I worked on over and over again. It was a safe assumption that other sisters in the room were doing a similar process.
The most important part of my role was creating an environment for connections, facilitating conversations with sisters so they could teach each other in a positive way and encouraging individuals to ask themselves questions to figure out what they needed most to empower and motivate themselves in a direction that they felt God was pulling them.
I discovered that there is a simple, but complex paradox at work here. We were different, but we were the same. The more diverse the experience and process, the more it is speaking to a universal connection point. I could be solving my problems through developing a habit to wear sunglasses and drink more water to be comfortable – and the sister next to me was developing the habit of bringing colored pens and a notepad to class to be more comfortable with retaining information. We described a problem we were trying to solve and shared our prescriptions with each other. At its core, to be human is to be problem-solving and surviving challenging situations with as much grace as possible. I paid less attention to the “1 way of doing things” and championed finding a sustainable way of doing something.