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Understanding Collective Trauma: The First Step Toward Healing

An Indonesian family wades through flood waters, part of a community that is affected by collective trauma after a natural disaster.

When an individual faces violence or a life-threatening event, they may experience subsequent trauma in the form of emotional or mental distress and physical symptoms. Trauma is not limited to one person, however. Bombings, gun violence, natural disasters, and war are just some examples of collective trauma. “Collective trauma is an event, or series of events that shatters the experience of safety for a group, or groups, of people,” explains Dr. Leia Saltzman, assistant professor at Tulane University School of Social Work. “These events are different from other forms of traumatic events because of their collective nature. That is, these events are a shared experience that alter the narrative and psyche of a group or community.”

Traumatic incidents can be identified throughout history, from the Holocaust to apartheid to 911, to name just a few. Other instances come as natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. While it may not be averted, trauma can be addressed.

The Impact of Collective Trauma

Collective trauma does not occur in a vacuum but within a wider sociopolitical context. An understanding of the trauma’s root cause is also important in successfully addressing it. In the wake of school shootings, some Americans participated in social justice activism by marching or signing petitions that call for stricter gun control. Having identified the inciting event’s root cause to feel fear within their surroundings, they take action. Many find this process of acknowledgement, identification, and action transformative.

When speaking of collective trauma, noting that trauma can be both primary and secondary is important. Just because individuals were not present for a life-threatening incident does not mean it did not impact them. For example, American President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 affected the entire nation. People internalize others’ devastating experiences in what is known as secondary or vicarious trauma.

Numerous studies attest to collective trauma’s impact. One review of populations directly exposed to war and social unrest indicated a high instance of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression (MD). The study carried out by University of Münster researchers examined all countries that had experienced at least one local form of conflict between 1989 and 2015. According to an article on PTSD in The European Journal of Psychotraumatology, the study results showed that those events affected about 1.45 billion people and that about 354 million war survivors were diagnosed with PTSD and/or MD as of 2015.

Trauma can be intergenerational. Parents may pass on their psychological legacies to their children. Researchers examining families affected by war in Bosnia and Herzegovina found that some daughters of Bosnian women who were abused experienced flashbacks to sexual abuse although they themselves had not experienced it.

Addressing Collective Trauma

Addressing collective trauma will not only support individuals but also nurture a healthier society. Those who experience trauma should seek proper care and healing as soon as possible, and they need resources to do that. Governments, agencies, organizations, and mental health providers must help individuals and communities affected by any form of trauma. After a major traumatic event, officials must talk about its mental health affects, share phone numbers and websites for crisis intervention, and offer psychological first aid in the form of on-site counseling. While treating nationwide trauma can be more difficult, failing to do so will only result in some communities not having access to the care and resources they deserve. If individuals are not helped and social causes are not addressed, collective trauma can also exacerbate existing inequities in society.

The Social Worker’s Role in Addressing Collective Trauma

While governments, agencies, and organizations can fund programs and initiatives to provide aid for those who have been through trauma, skilled social workers are ultimately needed to administer that aid. These individuals work for the greater good of society, aiming to create stronger, safer, and happier communities. All voices need to be heard, and social workers often focus on the underserved, marginalized, and underrepresented.

According to Dr. Saltzman, “Social workers have a unique perspective and opportunity to work in the context of collective trauma because we consider the person in environment and have an understanding of the ways in which systems operate.” In addition, social work as a profession focuses on fostering positive adaptation such as resilience and post-traumatic growth. Dr. Saltzman explains: “This is important because we want to see individuals, families, and communities thrive in the wake of disaster and trauma — not just survive.”

Those who want to take on such challenging yet rewarding roles will benefit from a Master of Social Work. This degree provides graduates with knowledge and clinical skills via coursework such as:

  • Social Work Policy: Social workers must understand the systems they work within (and often strive to change). This course teaches the basics of the U.S. social welfare system as well as how to analyze and understand it in relation to sexism, racism, globalization, and poverty.
  • Theories of Human Behavior: Social work is ultimately about working with people and understanding their situations. This course provides insights into human relationship development — such as how people connect and disconnect and how they are empowered or diminished — to allow for a clinical yet relationship-focused approach.
  • Research for Evidence-Based Practice: EBP is a methodology used to make decisions in the field based on demonstrable facts. This course explores the method as a way to allow social workers to provide the quantitative and qualitative evidence that is needed to sway social change.

These are just a few of the courses students in an advanced social work program may take. With this education, social workers are prepared to work at many levels, including direct care (therapy or clinical work), program development, community organizing, policy development, or research.

Tulane University’s Online Master of Social Work

Students who choose to pursue a Master of Social Work at Tulane University will get a comprehensive education in the above areas while also benefiting from the opportunity to complete fieldwork in their local community. Opportunities are available in a range of settings, as Tulane partners with organizations nationwide, from hospitals to nonprofits. The program makes social justice a priority, encouraging students throughout the process to serve vulnerable populations.

In addition, Tulane offers a Disaster and Collective Trauma Certificate, which focuses on training students to use an “anti-oppressive” social work lens. As Dr. Saltzman explains, “We train students to recognize that clients are the experts in their own lives and their communities — even those terribly impacted by trauma or disaster — have the ability to create their own solutions and find ways to heal that are meaningful for their context and culture.” Tulane ensures students understand theories of trauma, historical oppression, and collective trauma. This theoretical knowledge is combined with hard skills such as crisis intervention, psychological first aid, and trauma-informed care.

The Tulane University School of Social Work provides clinical and community-based practice skills and opportunities for those that want to empower individuals, families, groups, and communities. For those who are captivated by that call, a Master of Social Work is the next step.

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