We need to talk about trauma: Why the church needs to face up to a massive problem

One in three UK based adults report experiencing some kind of traumatic life event, defined as an incident where we or someone close to us experiences a risk of serious harm or death. Given that 61 per cent of 11-17 year olds have experienced community violence, that most of our octogenarians lived through a world war and that some 26 per cent of women and 14 per cent of men have encountered domestic violence, I think we can safely say that the incidence is probably higher.

Many (but not all) of us endure a single experience and move on. There is an increasing and alarming amount of evidence that suggests that when the number of incidents is increased, and the age at which they are experienced is reduced, the impact can be devastating. Adverse childhood experiences have a deep impact on life chances: relational, social, psychological and physical.

PixabayHuge numbers of people experience trauma – but is the church ready to help?

I am writing off the back of a recent Church of EnglandGeneral Synod presentation about the experience of survivors of abuse in the Church. In the honest testimony offered, it is clear that the Church is often inept, dismissive and sometimes downright awful in its treatment of the traumatised.

I pray for the day that trauma will end, our tears will be wiped away and rest in God's presence ensured. But until that day I pray that we will learn from the experience of survivors and that we will get better at dealing with trauma.

If one third of us experience trauma, then what can we as the living body of Christ do in the name of our wounded saviour that helps us all to survive and thrive? In short – can we become a trauma friendly Church?

Teach

I've never heard a sermon on trauma. I've never really preached a sermon on trauma. And yet Scripture is not shy of detailing traumatic events and people's response to them. The Old Testament gives us Elijah, fleeing after the dramatic encounter on Mount Carmel. We also have the collectively traumatic exodus, exile and return.

The first disciples, it seems to me, spent the initial days after Jesus' death dealing with their own trauma. Mary went back to the tomb, Thomas disappeared, others stayed together hidden in an upper room. The pair on the road to Emmaus are found by Jesus talking out their disappointment and pain.

We need to include these experiences in our teaching – owning that in the overarching story of God and people, there is trauma. We need to remember that bad things happen to good people. We need to be real when 'God working all things together for good' seems like rubbish. We need to look at how we teach forgiveness, giving people tools to process pain rather than platitudes they cannot live by. We may, with Jesus, need to eschew comparisons of pain. How many people in our churches do not speak up about their pain because 'it's not as bad as...'?

We might need to choose our testimony differently – in a world where victory is sometimes just still standing, then let's share those small victories with empathy and tears.

Together my prayer is that we would go from being churches where people feel unsafe to talk about trauma, to places where our openness means that those who would seek to control and harm others know there is no hiding place.

Talk and give permission to not talk

The Mental Health Foundation suggests that people might need to seek professional help if they have no one to talk to. It saddens me that in our churches we may have or be people dealing with trauma who feel that we have no one to talk to. Its saddens me more because I know that when people talk they may just discover others who can say 'me too'.

A healthy sign of someone dealing with or working through something horrible is that they can tell the story more coherently and that after a few weeks other signs of recovery are happening. Surely our churches can be places where we are able to spot where that recovery is not happening.

Of course, this works when we are dealing with the one-off level of traumatic experience. There is a deeper and more pervasive level of trauma marked by shame and silence. It does not speak because sometimes finding the words is likened to 'reaching down to a deep well to pick up small fragile crystal figures while you are wearing thick leather mittens' (Jerome Kagan quoted in Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score).

In these circumstances it can be retraumatising to make someone talk, but I hope that the church can be a place that facilitates a conversation with God that transcends words. Movement, art and silence are all part of our rich history and all ways in which our pain can be vented safely. Being trauma friendly may also mean giving space for expression other than words.

Trigger proof church

About once every six weeks someone will trigger trauma in me. Normally it happens in the church kitchen, as someone turns round with a sharp knife in their hand and off I go. My breathing will go shallow, I might sweat and I have to deploy my best techniques to not run. It's a silly example – and I'm fine – but how many other triggers do we hit in our church life?

We can't mitigate for every circumstance, but there are things we can do. A healthy culture of touch by invitation is a good example – so no one feels that they could be grabbed and hugged or kissed by a random stranger. I think it can be helpful for people to know what will happen in a service, to know where they can escape to and for it to be OK to go and take a minute to recover. And, of course, when we know each others' stories we can get better at this – for I hope that none of our churches would seek to harm.

Train

This will not happen by itself. Our churches need training. We may need to learn to listen, to think outside of our own safe worlds into worlds where nothing is safe. We are beginning to see that we can do this as we become dementia friendly – I wonder if we can apply some of that rigour to something that is even more prevalent.

Rev Jude Smith is the team rector of Moor Allerton and Shadwell in North Leeds. Follow her on Twitter @gingervicar

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