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Understanding trauma in communications: what we learnt from the experts



Jess Hull, Communications & Policy Analyst

Monday 13 December 2021

To better understand how trauma can affect how people receive, interpret and respond to information and messages, staff at Crest Advisory underwent training with two trauma specialists - Dr Catherine Broadway and Dr Sarah Heke. Dr Heke works for the Centre for Anxiety, Stress and Trauma (CAST), which is part of the Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust. Our Communications Analyst, Jess Hull, reflects on the session and how it has strengthened our understanding of trauma.

Across our research and strategic communications work, we regularly encounter people who have experienced trauma. It is important that as a team we understand what ‘trauma’ actually means, what the signs and symptoms are and how it affects individuals differently. Having that knowledge helps us ensure that our work is ‘trauma-informed’.

That is particularly important for our teams who support public inquiries, inquests and independent reviews, where the people involved – those who have suffered injury, harm or bereavement – are often traumatised.

Dr Broadway and Dr Heke began the session defining psychological trauma, grief, loss and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The specialists explained that becoming distressed in response to traumatic events is a normal reaction, not a sign of illness, and discussed how people process and deal with trauma in different ways, depending on their experiences. Loss can be felt at the same time as grief, and can mean different things: the loss of an expected future, the loss of aspects of someone’s personality or identity. It was particularly interesting to learn that adults and children may have different symptoms of PTSD and that traumatic events caused by human decisions lead to higher rates of PTSD than those caused by natural disasters. That resonated very strongly with our experiences, having worked on a number of major UK public inquiries since 2014.

Understanding the basic physiology of trauma led to a discussion on how people control and deal with their emotions. For example, those who are closely involved or taking part in an inquiry might well react differently to others to evidence, findings and media reports. An awareness of that is crucial.

Throughout the discussion, Dr Broadway and Dr Heke made space for the team to reflect on how trauma shapes our work at Crest, for example, where we have experienced trauma or loss in the past, and how we might respond in the future when supporting inquiries, inquests and reviews.

To conclude the session, we considered what an effective ‘trauma-informed’ approach involves, aware that the phrase itself is often circulated as a panacea for vulnerability with little understanding of how it operates in practice. Dr Broadway and Dr Heke were clear that trauma-informed working is about recognising the impact of trauma and supporting recovery, always informed by those who’ve had experience of it.

In communications, that translates to a focus on understanding people's different experiences, acknowledging their concerns, working together with them, ensuring they have a say in decisions, and building trust. In the context of a statutory public inquiry, governed by the legal framework of the Inquiries Act 2005 and Inquiry Rules (2006), that can often be a lot easier said than done. That is where skilful communications which balance the need for a trauma-informed approach with the legal requirements of the inquiry process is a valuable asset.

Finally, Dr Broadway and Dr Heke reminded the team about the importance of looking after ourselves, looking out for colleagues and recognising when we need support.

The training has helped us to reflect earnestly on how we can understand and improve our response to trauma in our work, and provided valuable clinical insight on best practice. We have more training on the subject coming up, including a session with the head of family liaison for a major child abuse inquiry.


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