by Jim H. Smith
Early in her career, while working as a social worker serving children and adolescents, Laura Quiros, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Social Work, observed that adolescents with substance abuse problems often relapsed despite her best efforts. Later, working with women who also were in recovery for substance abuse issues, she noticed a similar trend. “The women would enter a treatment center for a time, but once they returned to the community they relapsed,” she said. “I realized I needed to better understand the environment in which their problems had first emerged.”
The common thread, she discovered, was trauma. “Nearly everyone who is served by a public mental health or substance abuse program has experienced some sort of trauma,” she said. “It is an underlying cause of their problems, but many treatment programs emphasize only addiction. Unless the trauma is addressed as part of treatment, chances of a successful outcome are significantly reduced.”
Dr. Quiros’ interest in the impact of trauma and the failure of many traditional treatment models to effectively address it was a compelling factor in her decision to obtain her doctorate in 2009. And it has been a key focus of her research into trauma informed care (TIC) in the ensuing years.
“TIC is a rapidly evolving area of mental health treatment that is grounded in the understanding that trauma has played a significant role in the lives of people with a wide range of mental health and addiction problems,” she explained. “Contrary to traditional approaches to mental health and addiction treatment, it demands that professionals consider the significance of trauma in their clients’ lives.”
Central to the effectiveness of TIC as a treatment strategy is what Dr. Quiros refers to as a “liberation mind-set.” She explained that “the traditional treatment approach focuses on saving ‘victims.’ Traditional psychology has failed to provide a complex analysis of how both society and individuals participate in the construction of their world and how this dynamic, in turn, shapes the way individuals see themselves and are seen by others.” Too often the conceptualization as well as the treatment of trauma is “rigid and narrow, and support services are based on the over-generalized experiences [of] middle-class, white women and men.”
Dr. Quiros’ scholarship helps to broaden the definition of trauma by focusing on the sociopolitical complexity of trauma. She is able to understand how trauma is intrinsically and systematically linked to experiences of racism, sexism, classism, ethno-religious oppression and homophobia. How individuals see themselves and are seen by others varies strikingly from culture to culture, said Dr. Quiros, whose work on TIC is informed by her research on the social construction of racial and ethnic identity. By way of example, she explained that she studies “the nuances of race and culture among Latinas and the negotiation of identity within various social contexts.” TIC, she said, aims to deal directly with individuals’ social locations and histories of trauma. It aims to help them recognize how both society and past trauma have affected and are affecting them.
“A major part of my mission as a teacher is to help my students understand the significance and complexity of race, culture and trauma, and its treatment,” she said.