Eagle reporting inspired NEPR series on trauma in Berkshires

For the past two decades, Karen Brown, a senior reporter for New England Public Radio, has covered health care, mental health and children's issues across Western Massachusetts and beyond.

Many of her stories related to trauma, such as the health effects of childhood hunger, the tolls of migrant family separation, and how trauma can affect the rates of substance abuse among military veterans.

But upon reading in The Berkshire Eagle about a 2016 initiative to make Berkshire County a "trauma-informed community," Brown said she was inspired to produce a series that could tie in all these effects of trauma together.

"The term 'trauma-informed' — I hadn't heard of that before," she said. So, she began to investigate.

She also applied for and received a grant to support the project from WHYY in Philadelphia, which receives funding from the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation. It enabled Brown, whose office is in Springfield, to visit the Berkshires and record her interviews over the past nine months.

Her findings can now be found in a five-part series, "'What Happened To You?' A Western Massachusetts County Takes On Trauma," which debuted over the weekend and looks at the efforts of individuals and agencies, from a Cheshire family foster home to Lee Elementary School, to better support people who are living through traumatic experiences.

The series title is based on the trauma-informed approach of asking a person exhibiting distressed or adverse behaviors, "What happened to you?" rather than "What's wrong with you?"

"'Trauma-Informed Berkshires' joins a national trend of communities that preach awareness, empathy, and patience in the face of severe economic, social, and psychological stress," Brown wrote in her series.

"Trauma as a term can be so amorphous and hard to define, so I just wanted a way to sort of help illustrate what trauma looks like across a community," she told The Eagle in a phone interview Tuesday. "In a way, the campaign created a framework that was useful to telling these stories."

According to the American Psychological Association, a traumatic event "is one that threatens injury, death, or the physical integrity of self or others and also causes horror, terror, or helplessness at the time it occurs."

"Traumatic events include sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, community and school violence, medical trauma, motor vehicle accidents, acts of terrorism, war experiences, natural and human-made disasters, suicides, and other traumatic losses. In community samples, more than two-thirds of children report experiencing a traumatic event by age 16."

"I do think schools are rife with trauma discussions right now," Brown said.

In the Berkshires, the biological and psychological effects of traumatic experiences have manifested in schools in myriad ways. Anecdotally, teachers have reported increases in fighting, food insecurity and anxiety among students.

"But," as Brown wrote in the fifth installation of her series, "in practice, getting an entire, diverse community to stop and think about what their neighbors, clients or students have been through is easier said than done."

Still, it won't stop Berkshire County residents and leaders from trying.

Recent efforts across community sectors include training people, from teachers to members of law enforcement to medical professionals, how to approach a person or a situation without causing more stress or trauma.

What has worked in the Berkshires so far, Brown said, is that leaders "seem to have ideas of what's most likely to work in their area" based on its unique geography and social issues.

But the Berkshires, she said, is not alone.

Said Brown: "Child abuse, divorce, severe illness can happen anywhere, from one community to the next."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6239.


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