On April 18, 2016, Connecting Ottawa, a network of community health, legal, immigration, disability, and social service agencies working to improve access to justice for linguistic minorities in Ottawa, hosted a conference entitled “Sounds Traumatic: Rethinking What Trauma Means for Legal and Social Work.” Utilizing a trauma-informed approach is important when working with new immigrants and refugees who may have experienced traumatic situations in their home countries. The conference was particularly timely given the recent arrival of new Syrian refugees to Ottawa.
Trauma-informed care is a framework that prioritizes safety and trust between service-providers and their clients. It involves understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects of all types of trauma, including physical, psychological and emotional trauma. Therefore, trauma-informed care emphasizes the safety of both clients and service-providers. By providing trauma-informed care lawyers, social workers, and other practitioners are helping clients build and retain a sense of control and empowerment in their own situations.
It is important for lawyers working within a trauma-informed approach to continually question their own assumptions. Unfortunately, there are tendencies amongst individuals working with new immigrants, and particularly with refugees, to project vulnerability onto their clients as well as to medicalize suffering. Consequently, presenters at the Connecting Ottawa conference repeatedly emphasized that it is important not to treat refugees like “refugees.” Instead, practitioners should remain open to the fact that distress does not necessarily equate a mental disorder — distress can simply be a normal response to an abnormal situation.
Trauma-informed care also recognizes that post-migratory stressors can result in stress that did not exist prior to an immigrant or refugee arriving in Canada. For example, isolation, often stemming from lack of English or French language skills or a lack of employment, can have a significant effect on an individual’s mental health. Additionally, practitioners should also remember that different cultures have different understandings of mental health. For example, some clients may describe their mental health by using physical descriptors and other clients may be extremely hesitant to discuss their mental health due to cultural stigma.
Overall, using a trauma-informed approach requires the lawyer or other service provider to consider the context and understand the strengths, prejudices, weaknesses, and expertise of all individuals involved in a client’s case. While doing so may take more time and appear to be more difficult, it is necessary in order to fully allow for the range of experiences and reactions that a trauma survivor may experience.