The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately harmed communities of color and exposed longstanding disparities and injustices within our health care system and society. It is impossible to quantify the impact of the pandemic in addition to the longstanding ongoing harm caused by violence and racism. In this pivotal moment in history, we must find new ways to support healing at the individual and community level.
Healing Us Together (HUT) is an innovative program that supports collective healing in Baltimore through facilitated community conversations that help people move from trauma to healing. HUT partners with Baltimore faith leaders and community leaders to strengthen existing support systems and improve access to culturally appropriate conversations about mental health.
In times of crisis, people often turn to trusted faith and community leaders for support. In many neighborhoods in Baltimore, the faith and community leaders fill the gaps to provide support where health care systems have fallen short. Many people do not seek professional help after they have experienced trauma because they do not fully understand the effects of trauma, and of the stigma associated with mental health care. It is more comfortable to turn to trusted faith and community leaders for support. HUT is unique because it helps established and trusted community leaders offer support through healing conversations, not therapy.
Gwen Brown, the Community Engagement Coordinator at Behavioral Health System Baltimore (BHSB), knew that when COVID hit, the suffering would be disproportionately felt in communities of color. She saw an opportunity to expand S.E.L.F. Community Conversations, which BHSB had been developing through the work of BHSB’s community resilience team, led by Patricia Cobb Richardson and Terri Alexander. S.E.L.F. Community Conversations is an adaptive approach building on the S.E.L.F. curriculum developed by Sandra Bloom ,MD. Ph.D. S.E.L.F. stands for Safety, Emotions, Loss, Future, which are the universal factors that are impacted by toxic stress and trauma. BHSB adapted the S.E.L.F. curriculum to offer as a tool for communities to foster their own healing.
Gwen brought together the BHSB team with Morgan State University’s School of Social Work and the Minister’s Conference of Baltimore and Vicinity represented by Bishop Kevin Daniels, Ph.D. and Dr. Paul Archibald, LCSW-C Community Leader, to discuss the impact of the crisis. They agreed that something needed to be done to support healing from within the communities most impacted by the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial trauma. Together they created the model for Healing Us Together (HUT) with support from Johns Hopkins. It was implemented with support from Healing City Baltimore.
HUT uses S.E.L.F. to facilitate small group conversations that help participants develop a shared language about the impact of trauma and toxic stress. The model supports participants in moving from injury to emotional health and wellbeing.
HUT participants learn to facilitate community conversations through a 5-week group learning experience. The HUT team adapted the S.E.L.F. Curriculum by adding concepts from the 7 Healing Centered Commitments and the 7 Principles of Kwanzaa.
Moving from Trauma to Healing
HUT gives participants a shared language to name and process the impacts of trauma and loss in their lives. It creates a safe space for people to share their stories. The facilitators are there to listen and guide the conversation, but they share power with the participants who are the collaborators and co-designers of the experience. This serves as a reminder that knowledge and choice is an antidote to trauma and loss.
The expansion of trauma informed care has moved the conversation from ‘what’s wrong with you’ to ‘what happened to you’. Dr. Paul Archibald wants to take it one step further and ask, ‘what’s right with you?’ HUT helps us understand that we are so much more than our trauma. Our communities in Baltimore have suffered and have experienced so much trauma and pain, but our communities are also vital sources of support, healing, and joy.
If I Hurt, We Hurt
“We really want individual folks and community members to realize that the trauma and adversity they experience is not at the individual level; it is collective.” Dr. Archibald explains. This understanding that the burden of trauma is shared is an essential part of community healing. During a HUT conversation among the first cohort, one member shared a story of trauma they experienced because of an interaction with police. Another member shared that he was impacted by similar police involved traumatic experience in college. The conversation made him realize he still had work to do over the incident and together they were able to work through the impact of their shared experiences and support each other to move towards healing.
HUT gives community members tools to facilitate supportive healing conversations among our neighbors and friends. We know that community members and leaders are the true first responders in a crisis. HUT will give participants tools to better cope with crisis, support others and collectively move forward towards healing. Gwen can personally attest to the healing power of HUT. She said “HUT helped get me through the last year. Those meetings gave me a lot of coping mechanisms. I have friends who have been very impacted by this year and through my experience with S.E.L.F. I have been better able to support them.”