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“Speaking About the Unspeakable”: Three Black Women Who Changed the Landscape for Survivors of Childhood Trauma

3 Black Women Who Changed the Landscape for Survivors of Childhood Trauma

From left to right: Helen Nash, Nadine Burke Harris, and Safe Horizon’s Sherri Papamihalis

February 16, 2018

Stories of experiencing or witnessing violence appear constantly in mainstream media, but the frequency and intensity of these experiences are often misrepresented or misunderstood. According to The National Center For Victims of Crime, nearly 60% of youth in the United States will be victimized before turning 18, and black youth aged 12-19 experience violence at a significantly higher rate than their peers.

Experiencing or witnessing violence can be traumatic. Traumatic experiences are those that overwhelm a person’s regular ability to cope and process an experience, and trigger unconscious survival responses in the brain and body. Trauma changes not only the way we think and feel, but also the way our body reacts instinctively and unconsciously.

Trauma can affect children and adolescents differently than adults, because their brains and bodies are still developing. Children are more resilient than adults in many ways, but children who experience trauma need help to understand and recover from a traumatic experience in a healthy way.

Helen Nash, Nadine Burke Harris, and Safe Horizon’s Sherri Papamihalis have changed the landscape of our understanding of childhood trauma and our efficacy in addressing it, each in different ways.

Helen Nash was the first black physician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, and was a devoted advocate for the rights of the children she worked with. She was consistently curious about sources of suffering in the home or community environment that may have been overlooked in the general practice of medicine. A colleague described her approach: “She always asked about what was going on in the family, what was going on beyond this ache or that pain.” Her curiosity and persistence led future practitioners to take a more comprehensive approach to addressing children’s health.

Nadine Burke Harris is a pediatrician and founder of the Center for Youth Wellness. In her pediatric practice, she began screening children for trauma, and found that many of their physical ailments could be related to unaddressed trauma in their lives. “It could be that all these different kids have all these diagnoses, or it could be that there is one thing at the root,” she says. She now advocates for every pediatrician to screen for trauma, and to use that knowledge to inform their care, and to help prevent the effects of trauma from lasting into adulthood.

Sherri Papamihalis is the Clinical Director at Safe Horizon’s Counseling Center, providing expert, evidence-based support to children and their caregivers following traumatic experiences. “We want to believe that children don’t remember the trauma that happened to them,” she says. “Unfortunately, we’re wrong. They did see. They did remember. They were impacted by it.

Whether the trauma itself was physical or not, trauma can have both physical and mental effects. “Trauma causes the nervous system to produce stress hormones. Under normal circumstances when you have a stressor, you have a physical reaction to it, but then your heart rate and breathing go back to normal.” Children who have unaddressed trauma, and especially repeated trauma, can get stuck in survival mode and are constantly on alert. “Their bodies are always geared up, like a car that is always revving.

Working with children immediately following their experience is hugely helpful to the healing process. “I work with lots of adult clients who have complex trauma. The opportunity to work with children when they’re little reduces the number of adults who had to go for many years being silent and keeping it in. We help children speak about the unspeakable.

Safe Horizon offers trauma therapy and other services for survivors of abuse and their caregivers. To find out more about the services available to you, call our 24-hour hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE (4673).

In celebration of Black History Month, we are highlighting the work of nine leaders in three fields within the scope of Safe Horizon’s work: advocating for the rights of children who have experienced trauma, survivors of sexual assault, and boys and young men of color harmed by violence. We mourn the staggering measure of humanity and talent that has been denied in the African-American community due to racist actions, policies, and beliefs, and we celebrate all of the achievements that have been made despite this.

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