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Trauma-Informed Social Work: Best Practices and Strategies

December 20, 2023
Person, holding hands with social worker

While the concept of trauma was first explored in the context of war, it’s now understood to encompass a wide variety of experiences. Everything from adverse childhood experiences, such as sexual abuse, to surviving a natural disaster can trigger a traumatic response. In fact, an international survey found that more than 70% of the population has reported being affected by traumatic events.1

A deeper understanding of the psychological harm caused by trauma has transformed the world of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatment. But it’s also played a powerful role in shaping the field of social work.

More social workers are focusing on training that highlights a trauma-informed framework that focuses on the impact of trauma on both individuals and communities. Trauma-informed social work helps social workers better understand the people they serve, addressing the root of their behavior and creating a treatment plan that's tailored to their needs.

Let’s explore the basics of trauma-informed social work, including the best practices for bringing trauma-informed care to your clients.

Understanding Trauma-Informed Mental Health Services Administration

For social workers, understanding trauma is integral to the practice. It’s common to encounter clients with a traumatic history, including clients who may be actively experiencing trauma.

A trauma-informed social worker understands that those who need services the most may have been fundamentally shaped by their traumatic experiences. From crisis intervention techniques to emotional regulation strategies, social workers can use a trauma-informed approach to tailor a treatment plan to each client’s complex needs.

Trust, safety and empowerment are the core principles of trauma-informed social work. Acknowledging and understanding the lived experiences of your clients helps you create a supportive environment—one in which they can feel safe to heal and move forward.

Creating a Trauma-Informed Organizational Culture

To create and enhance a trauma-informed system of care, you need to implement changes to the practices and culture of your entire organization. A trauma-informed practice means upholding a culture of safety, care, trust and collaboration among everyone in your practice–from licensed clinical social workers to the front desk staff.

Beyond the culture, your practice should also have policies and procedures that prioritize trauma-informed care in all interactions with clients. Regular training keeps staff members educated on the latest developments in trauma-informed care, including PTSD treatment.

Building a Rapport and Establishing Trust

To do effective social work with people who have experienced trauma, you need to focus on building meaningful relationships with your clients. Practicing client-centered counseling techniques, such as active listening and other validation techniques, can help you build your relationships on empathy.

Implementing a comprehensive trauma-informed approach means ensuring that:3

  • Clients feel safe, physically and emotionally
  • Clients, their families, and other staff members have a voice in the process
  • Clients can make autonomous and informed choices
  • Clients have a sense of trust with social workers and other staff members

A trauma-informed practice should also take care to prioritize client autonomy. Feeling a loss of control can be triggering for someone who has experienced trauma if not completely retraumatizing.4 Even if it’s unintentional, taking away a client’s sense of control and choice can make things worse.

Trauma Screening and Assessment

Exposure to trauma is common, but it can be even more common for vulnerable groups. For example, surveys found that exposure to trauma is especially common for clients with mental health or substance use disorders.5

Without screening, traumatic histories and related symptoms may go undetected. That’s why it’s important to implement a comprehensive trauma assessment, identifying potential issues before they get any worse. Then, discuss these findings with the client to understand the impact these experiences may have had on their life.

Trauma-Informed Interventions and Treatments

Once you’ve identified trauma in your clients, what’s next? Working in collaboration with the client, it’s time to develop a personalized, trauma-informed care plan.

The most effective trauma recovery interventions are evidence-based. For example, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) have been shown to be effective in PTSD treatment.6 Other therapeutic techniques, like trauma narrative therapy, can also help clients unpack their trauma.

The work doesn’t stop when a client leaves the office. Leave clients with relaxation and mindfulness techniques so they can practice self-care and emotional regulation at home.

Collaborating With Interdisciplinary Teams

It takes a team to provide comprehensive support for trauma. That means in addition to your role as a social worker, you may need to collaborate with interdisciplinary teams to get the best results. Think about how you can share expertise across disciplines with psychologists, psychiatrists, educators and more.

Your practice should also make it easy for clients to rely on these other professionals when needed. Focus on coordinating referrals to support clients when they need to access other resources, such as mental health treatments, substance abuse clinics, LGBTQ+ services or domestic violence shelters.

Self-Care for Trauma-Informed Social Workers

Handling clients’ trauma can put social workers at risk of taking on stress of their own. One study found that 17.7% of caseworkers suffer from secondary trauma or traumatic stress.7

Remember that you’re not doing this alone. Your supervisors and colleagues can help you navigate the emotional demands of your role. Other self-care strategies include:8

  • Making time for self-reflection
  • Resting and relaxing
  • Staying connected with friends, family, and colleagues
  • Avoiding burnout and overwork
  • Seeking support for compassion fatigue prevention

Evaluation and Continuous Improvement

Implementing trauma-informed policies and interventions is just the first step. Next, you need to assess the outcome and keep adapting your practices to provide the best possible trauma support.

Start by collecting feedback from clients, as well as general data like demographics, to get a sense of how your interventions are going. Then, use this data to inform your next steps.

Make sure you stay up to date on the broader world of trauma research and use those best practices to guide you.

Putting Trauma-Informed Care First in Social Work

Due to the nature of your work, becoming a social worker means crossing paths with the impact of trauma. Knowing how to identify trauma and provide the best possible care is critical for success in the field.

It’s important to remember that trauma-informed care isn’t as easy as implementing a single new practice. It takes dedication to the practice, including a constant evaluation and re-evaluation of your strategies, to bring your clients the best possible trauma care.

Through Yeshiva University’s online Master of Social Work (MSW) program, you’ll receive clinical training and field-based knowledge to build lasting social change.

As a leader in social work education, Yeshiva University is at the forefront of trauma-informed and diverse social work practices. Study with leaders in the field and get clinical training for advanced practice with individuals and families, group work and community settings.

Get started today. Schedule a call with an admissions outreach advisor today.