Free workshop to teach Berkshire County human service leaders the art of 'trauma-informed' care

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PITTSFIELD — Walla Walla, Wash., aspires to be one. So do Tarpon Springs, Fla., and Pottstown, Penn.

And since October, human service leaders in Berkshire County have been striving to create the same thing: a "trauma-informed community."

That bit of jargon describes a place where people in the helping professions pledge to show deeper compassion by taking a longer view of their clients' problems.

The treatment philosophy looks for the bigger picture, so that the therapist, social worker or clinician can put a client's needs in context — and make sure he or she is seen as more than the sum of problems.

"It's not what's wrong with you, but what's happened to you," said Peggy Morse, chair of the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention, summing up a key principle of the work. "I think that's a powerful statement. It's a beautiful tagline."

On Tuesday, three leaders in a national movement to make human services more humane and empathetic come to Pittsfield to offer a free morning workshop at the Colonial Theatre.

It was in the same theater that over 200 representatives of human services agencies gathered last October to kick-start their effort to "walk in the shoes" of those they seek to help.

"I think it's very simple," said Chris Haley, site director of the Berkshire office of the state Department of Mental Health, a key organizer of Tuesday's program.

"I think in our world we make things more complicated than they are," she said. "Trauma-informed communities are cropping up all over the country."

Registration for the program begins at 8:15 a.m. at the theater. To reserve a seat, call 413-997-4444. The program runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

"I would encourage nonclinical people to come. We have to have buy-in from people in power," Haley said.

Speakers include Michael Skinner, Raul Almazar and Joan Gillece, all of whom have experience bringing reforms to human services practices nationally.

Year of work

In the 10 months since the inaugural event in Pittsfield, people behind the Berkshires campaign have held four other events and meetings. The goal of Tuesday's gathering is to talk about ways "trauma-informed care" can be put into place.

Morse, of the suicide prevention coalition, took part in a June 1 session with staff from the Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield and the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge. That event addressed both suicide and addiction. Nearly 200 people participated, according to Haley.

"It's a real labor of love," Morse said of the project.

Stacey Parsons, executive director of Berkshire County Head Start, hosted a March 13 event called "Building Resilience in Our Community" underwritten by a grant from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In her field, Parsons said, caregivers help children move past traumatic experiences in part by identifying their sources of strength, not just their injuries. "Pieces that help you bounce back are just as important, or more important," Parsons said.

The experts who took part in the March session now regularly advise Head Start, building resiliency in the program itself.

"We weren't aware of the great work people are doing, and the ability to network," Parsons said.

Tuesday's gathering at the Colonial Theatre again gives people in the human services field the chance to build partnerships with the shared goals of treating clients with respect, recognizing how their experiences shaped them.

"So we can be sure," Parsons said, "that everyone has their hands in."

Other agencies active in the project this past year include the Brien Center, the Berkshire United Way, the Christian Center, Berkshire Theatre Group, Berkshire Pathways, Berkshire Health Systems and the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Working Cities and the Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Coalition.

Haley, in particular, has been banging the drum through her job with the Department of Mental Health to make this new care approach a reality in the Berkshires.

The work continues to be informed by a focus group held last year in which human services clients said they can feel alienated from agency providers.

"It validates them," Haley said the different kind of care shaped by the project. "It's respectful and inclusive. Relationships are the key to healthy living and in making a difference for people.

"`You belong here.' That's the message of trauma-informed care," she said. "It's being open to helping people who are in need in every way that you can. I'm hoping we can bring it into the community even further."

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass


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