To understand and deal with people going through trauma, organizations must first learn to understand its meaning within their own ranks and must network with others.
That lesson, and others, were key takeaways from the first day of a three-day summit sponsored by the Kodiak Summit Community Coalition, a group aimed at addressing the unmet mental health needs on the Emerald Isle.
Joyce Starr, a trainer consultant with Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, led the session, imparting the need for organizations to build an understanding of trauma within their internal structures as their members deal with the public, victims or criminal suspects.
The summit was funded through a grant to the Kodiak Police Department and takes off from a previous event, “Creating a Culture of Recovery,” held in February 2020. The summit was supposed to be held in April 2020, but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tuesday’s session revolved around law enforcement and first responders, and drew two dozen people from Kodiak Police Department, Alaska State Troopers, Kodiak Women’s Resource and Crisis Center, Kodiak Area Native Association and Kodiak Area Mentor Program, among others.
“We don’t necessarily come to represent our agencies, but rather with our experience from our agencies, and really come together to decide: What are we doing to make Kodiak a better community for everyone to live in?” said Kodiak Police Chief Tim Putney during the summit.
Putney said Kodiak historically has suffered from a drought of accessible resources to address drug addiction, a primary focus of the coalition.
Those resources include treatment and recovery programs.
“We may have someone who is going through treatment and they don’t have a place to live, they may fall back into old trends and habits. It’s not productive and not helping them,” Putney said.
Sandra Jackson, who heads the coalition, said the purpose was to “bring social, justice and … educational systems into a broader understanding that they are all community services and all about people.”
“The things that bring us to those challenges underline a common denominator, which is trauma,” Jackson said.
Jackson added that the slogan developed for the trauma underscores the need for community resources to work together.
“If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together,” Jackson said. “This group has decided not to be lone rangers, but go at it together.”
Topics on Tuesday involved how to identify or understand trauma within the workplace, how to differentiate between empathy and sympathy, as well as devising a plan to assess resources among partner agencies and organizations.
“Trauma is going to be different for every single person,” Starr said, adding that trauma is defined by an event, impact and effect. While some people might go through similar events, it could have radically different impacts or effects on people.
“Just because you didn’t experience the event differently doesn’t mean you weren’t impacted by it,” Starr said.
Empathy, Starr said, is defined by someone being able to form a connection, listening and understanding another person’s pain, and not necessarily by trying to make comparisons or using their own past experiences to relate.
“People sometimes have a hard time just being present and not to have to be responsible for someone,” Starr said.
Dealing with people who have heightened anxiety or are less cooperative can be as simple as using careful statements, she said.
“A simple statement like ‘tell me what happened’ instead of ‘what did you do’ will work, because ‘what did you do’ plays right into blame and ‘you did something wrong,’” Starr said. “If you listen, they are going to tell you pretty important things. It really allows individuals to feel less anxious at times.”
She noted some exceptions, such as scenarios dealing with robberies or assaults.
Some summit participants shared stories of trauma they endured, or experiences that have served as triggers.
Kodiak Salvation Army Maj. Dave Davis said he used to do ride-alongs with Kodiak police officers. He said there were times when calls came in that dealt with the same individual or house over and over.
“You can’t go by those same houses every time without it having an effect on you, so it’s a trigger every day,” Davis said.
Starr said another point is to acknowledge that challenges exist for first responders or law enforcement who are dealing with members of the public, including whether they are truly helping people.
“By acknowledging those challenges, you can take another step and ask what we can do to make things better,” Davis said. “The challenges of the folks we are interacting with every day, it’s a daily occurrence for them, and for us. I think it’s important to understand it’s okay to have these feelings and still move forward.”
Starr advocated that when organizations begin building structures to better understand and analyze trauma — whether with victims, the general public or suspects — they should include someone from every department so they can provide their perspective.
“It’s about building the trust between each other, building trust with those you deal with, with the public, and building the trust so that it sticks,” Starr said. “It involves listening to every level of an organization … from top down and bottom up.”
Andi Bryant, a substance-use administrative assistant with KANA, noted that from her perception, Kodiak organizations individually are just getting started organizing while trying to handle a lack of resources.
She noted that at the moment, subsistence-abuse or mental-health-related concerns “are a vicious cycle,” where someone might come for treatment, fail it and drop out, and go to the police, to a shelter and then back to a group for treatment.
“We’re at this point where we are fighting the tide and not having enough people,” Bryant said.
The three-day summit, Jackson said, is designed to bring a greater understanding of what trauma is to front line personnel such as advocates and police officers. The second day is intended to increase the level of advocacy at the provider level “and be voices for change.”
The summit continued into Wednesday, dealing with topics relevant to clinicians, providers and counselors. Today’s session will bring together local leaders, community investors and members of boards of directors, something Jackson said becomes a game changer in the Kodiak Summit Community Coalition’s efforts.
The third day would address a level which hasn’t been worked with much.
“We are bringing together people who are able to make change at a higher level than what we’ve been able to do before,” Jackson said Tuesday.
She said that for the past five years, the coalition has worked at the provider and departmental level and improved relationships and trust.
“We are not at a level where we are able to make systemic changes at a community level, so we have to reach people who are in power to do that,” Jackson said.
Jackson stressed the importance of coming together as a community.
“If we don’t, we won’t make any real change,” Jackson said. “There’s a phenomenon called ‘silos,’ where people just stay within their own organizations and know what’s going on, but not going on outside. That’s not going to work in a place as small as Kodiak.”
By establishing better ties with community, elected and administrative leaders, Jackson said it will be a chance to bring further change to dealing with trauma, mental health and substance abuse on the island.
“We are looking for people who live Kodiak, who grieve here, celebrate here and live here because they choose to and bring that depth of awareness to the community,” Jackson said. “I think we have the resources here, we just need to pull together. And in pulling together, we allow each of them to grow and be the best they can be. If we work together, everyone can be greater than the sum of their parts.”