Research initiative bridging trauma and physical health kicks off with seminar series

One of two research projects funded through the Dean’s Centennial Seminars, the Complex Adverse Childhood Experience and Complex Aid (CASCAID) project aims to develop the evidence undergirding trauma-informed care. This evidence should lead to a theory of change, moving patients from trauma to resolution and resilience.  

CASCAID research coalesces around the imperative to treat the whole person by focusing on how life experiences influence biological health and finding ways to empower people both for better health and for resolution of traumatic experiences.
Recent science has shed light on the connection between experience of adverse life events – for example, being victim of abuse, or having a parent incarcerated – and chronic health problems. Experiencing traumatic events puts the body in a state of hyper-vigilance, constantly primed for fight or flight. That level of constant stress is hard on the body, and over time wears it down far more than typical stress levels wear on the body. At the same time, this toxic stress makes it hard to make good decisions and leads to high-risk behaviors as coping mechanisms.
This triangle of wear on the body, decision making, and high risk behaviors has led researchers and public health workers to hone in on the concept of trauma-informed care: providing care that recognizes and treats the effects of previous and on-going trauma in a person’s life. “The idea is that if you can heal the trauma, you can return the body to a healthy level of responding to life instead of the hyper-aroused, ready for anything level that becomes toxic,” explains Seng.
Seng noted that she and her team work with youth “who had a lot of trauma and stress in their lives.  We focus on maltreatment and assault survivors, trafficked girls, LGBTQ and homeless youth, and students in schools who come to nurses’ attention because they do high risk behaviors.  Seeing and responding to trauma in their lives opens up new ways of addressing their developmental and health needs.”
The first of several speakers connected to this project visited the University of Michigan School of Nursing (UMSN) in early January, kicking off the public outreach element of the initiative. Mary Mueller, MSW, project coordinator for Trauma Informed Systems, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, spoke on trauma informed care efforts at state and local levels in a presentation open to the public.
Speakers in the CASCAID seminar series will communicate the priorities for research at state and national levels. Opening these channels of communication will ensure that the CASCAID team’s research is responsive to local conditions and primed for implementation. “We believe this project will advance nursing science at the same time it benefits the state of Michigan and for that I’m very proud of our faculty” said Dean Hurn.
In addition to a number of speakers, two film screening have been organized along with a panel discussion to take place later in the spring and next fall. See the full schedule of events. The first film, Break the Chain, focuses on human trafficking in Michigan. 
The research team has joined forces in this project to lay the groundwork for comprehensively addressing trauma-informed care from a nursing perspective. Currently, most trauma-informed care focuses on mental health. A comprehensive groundwork will allow trauma-informed care to support biobehavioral health in addition to mental health.
“Our active work is to focus on how nursing can address the embodied side of traumatic stress with youth.” Though it is gratifying to know that “child-serving organizations in Michigan are rolling out ‘trauma-informed care’ models of practice . . . as scientists, we are seeing gaps, particularly in conceptualizing theories of change and in specifying outcomes to measure,” Seng explains. “There may be ways we can be of use by supporting evaluation efforts.”
After the research planning phase is underway, the team will begin with participatory phase of work by reaching out to community organizations that serve youth. “We have lots of ideas based on theory and the scientific literature. But we need to pull youth in with us to learn from them what they most want and need,” Seng says.
The second research project funded through the Dean’s Centennial Seminars is Bridging Climate and health: Seminar Series on Strengthening Research and Engagement, led by Sue Ann Bell, PhD, FNP-BC faculty at UMSN who has been involved in climate change related health issues locally and internationally.