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Trauma-focused therapy offers healing for people affected by child abuse, sexual assault

Clinicians have a variety of tools that can be effective for survivors of abuse.

Each April, behavioral health providers such as Rosecrance call attention to the harmful impacts caused by child abuse and sexual assault on millions of Americans.

More than two-thirds of children experience a traumatic event by age 16, and about 20 million youth show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Child abuse is one of the leading causes of these adverse childhood experiences, affecting more than a half-million youth, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Rape and sexual assault additionally impact nearly 500,000 individuals each year. While women under the age of 34 are most likely to be affected, sexual violence can occur to anyone.

“Child abuse and sexual violence can cause long-lasting harm in the lives of those who experience them, which is why it is so important that these victims are recognized in April,” said Dave Kellerhals, Director of Mental Health Services at Rosecrance Central Illinois. “The more we talk about these topics, the better we will be as a society to provide help, hope, and healing.”

Rosecrance clinicians are providing care to these individuals by incorporating trauma-informed care into treatment programs. This begins with an extra layer of empathy and awareness to foster a safe environment.

For people with these particular negative experiences, staff are trained to be aware of their own body language and to exercise caution when considering personal touch, as even a kind hand on the shoulder or a hug could be inappropriate.

This approach provides opportunities to build strong, trusting rapport with clients. The more genuine and authentic a clinician can be with the client, the more likely the necessary trust can be built, which will allow difficult conversations to occur and provide the client desired relief.

In addition, clinicians have a variety of tools that can be effective for victims of abuse. Narrative therapy helps clients tell experiences in their own way, then slowly shifts the storyline to reflect resiliency through the situation. Solution-focused, cognitive, and dialectical behavior therapies are traditional treatment modes that are valuable. A number of Rosecrance clinicians are trained in the ACE Interface model for youth as well.

Long-term recovery also is fostered by a variety of outward-facing activities, especially among those who have experienced sexual violence, observed Rosecrance Community Relations Coordinator Dr. Marcie Phillis, a trauma and resilience researcher. She noted that trauma survivors who found encouraging mentors or who focused on giving back to the community were much more likely to experience long-term resilience. On top of these, experiential therapies such as the arts—a staple of Rosecrance treatment—help clients connect with feelings and share them in positive ways.

“No matter what strategy a clinician employs, the focus always is on recognizing the good and bad that have happened in that person’s life, and finding how to build bridges to the positives,” Phillis said. “It takes a lot of strength to process the hurt, but it is so empowering when an abuse victim recognizes that they truly are survivors who have much to offer.”

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