By Katy Yoder
People with a calling to help those most in need are sometimes asked why they choose such challenging work. The answer is often the same. They’ve been there. Many of the people helping to educate the community about trauma-informed care and resiliency have experienced trauma themselves. They’ve learned that helping others can heal them too.
Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a licensed professional counselor who works with TRACEs, was raised in a family struggling with alcoholism, violence and hunger. Growing up in the projects of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, Fitzgerald felt like safety was a far-off, unreachable thing. Her journey beyond a traumatic youth is a story that personifies resilience with all its ebbs and flows.
For Fitzgerald, the important thing was she kept moving in a positive direction. As a child, she dreamed of escaping her life by hitch-hiking to Belize and selling coffee on the beach. But Fitzgerald’s mother saw her daughter’s potential and knew if she focused on possibilities and hard work, Fitzgerald could break her family’s cycle of generational poverty. She’s thankful for her mother’s insistence that she get an education and leave coffee sales in Central America to another adventurer. Instead, Fitzgerald went to college.
With support and encouragement from her professors, Fitzgerald graduated with a dual-masters in clinical mental health and expressive psychotherapy from Lesley University. Realizing many people didn’t understand her version of the world as a former homeless person, she decided to pursue research on trauma and resilience.
Today, in addition to being a licensed professional counselor, Fitzgerald is a clinical supervisor, researcher, trauma-informed care advocate and trainer. On top of her work with TRACEs, Fitzgerald works in collaboration with Trauma Informed Oregon, Central Oregon Suicide Prevention Alliance, state school-based health centers and she does community outreach on related topics. She uses her experience, education and tools across the state to offer training and support.
Fitzgerald’s original draw to Oregon from the East Coast came while she was working on a psych unit. There, Fitzgerald heard about Dr. Sandra Bloom’s Sanctuary Model of trauma-informed care, first adopted in The Dalles. Fitzgerald wanted to learn more about the progressive, small Oregon town.
“I saw how the Western healthcare model was reinjuring my clients,” Fitzgerald said. “Our system is good in many ways but it compartmentalizes symptoms and experiences and tries to rush us through our healing. At the same time, our healthcare system asks a lot of providers too. One of the reasons that I really love the Sanctuary Model is because it acknowledges the needs of the service population and the people providing the services.”
Intrigued by Oregon’s innovative attitude towards mental health, Fitzgerald interviewed with Deschutes County from the East Coast. She was hired and began working in Central Oregon seven years ago. Her timing was perfect. In 2014, Oregon passed trauma-informed legislation for behavioral health and public schools.
“Shortly after that TRACEs was taking shape and because of my role with the county and interest in it, I had support from the agency to receive training from Trauma Informed Oregon (TIO),” Fitzgerald said. “It all took place around the same time the legislation was passed in the state. TIO is the state hub for all things resilience-building. They have trained people throughout the state. The hope is that after being trained, you will provide foundation trainings to your area of service.”
One of her achievements was creating The Resolution Diamond, an experiential training that invites participants to explore the interpersonal dynamics of trauma using a proprietary framework that incorporates elements of Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Ultimately it’s a tool to learn to identify strategies for moving from fear to trust.
She has trained over 1,800 public servants, as well as health care administrators, doctors and high school students. She covers health care, behavioral health, education, prevention and WIC.
“I’m allowed to offer those trainings as part of my role as a county employee,” Fitzgerald said.
County behavioral health employees offer prevention, education and outreach trainings in the community. Anyone can request trainings in the community. On average Fitzgerald does presentations two or three times per month, depending on her work volume.
“My first responsibility is to my clients,” Fitzgerald said. “My team provides 100-200 hours per year in a variety of services. Our staff has various skills and expertise beyond trauma-informed care.”
Fitzgerald was on the TRACEs steering committee and she contributed information for the strategic plan. She worked with other dedicated professionals from every area of the community and was part of building TRACEs’ mission, vision and core values.
“From the beginning, TRACEs was formed to understand the needs of organizations and the community on systemic, professional and personal levels,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s providing deeper understanding, training, resources and opportunities to connect and learn about the impact of trauma on our world.”
Trauma-informed care is a global movement. The Sanctuary Model used in Deschutes County has over 400 sites internationally and it’s growing every day.
“This is a global issue, not one special group,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a particular sickness of Western, industrialized societies. In tribal cultures, they have rituals and community practices that go back centuries. They have rites of passage and ways of connecting that we’ve lost touch with in industrialized nations. That’s part of why the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified burnout as a diagnosis.”
The WHO has added burnout to the International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision (global diagnosis). Including burnout as a symptom shows the impact of Western culture and how people are separating from each other.
“The hopeful part of TIO is that it’s helping us to learn, in safe applicable ways, how to reconnect with ourselves and each other in spite of whatever experiences we may have had,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m seeing a ton of progress in our public services in Deschutes County which is very hopeful.”
A member of the Student Threat Assessment System, Fitzgerald works with a team of behavioral coaches and principals from schools, law enforcement and juvenile justice. What she observed this past year working with them to address threats of harm at school was an increasing awareness of the links between harm that’s been done to individuals and how it’s expressed as harm to others.
“We are now working on a policy and procedure for how to reintegrate students back into the community after they’ve made threats of harm using trauma-informed principles, practices and tools,” Fitzgerald said. “As a result of organizations like TRACEs and Trauma Informed Oregon and work done through the county, there’s a growing understanding of ourselves as a society and as individuals. We’re having more compassion for ourselves and each other and a willingness to explore new ways of doing things.”