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Staying Close from a Distance: Trauma-Informed Considerations in Virtual Human Services


The storms of the past looked quite different. There was a forecast, preparation, weathering through it, and then a hopeful recovery. The predictable pandemic ‘storm’ offered only an unknow ending with no known prevention or treatment in sight. The needed mitigation of social distancing has prevented even further loss of life, but the trauma of living through this has had significant implications for individuals, families, and communities. It has also dramatically changed the way we care for, interact with, support, and manage human service programs.

With the realization that what we are all experiencing may be traumatic, there will undoubtedly be an increased need for mental health services in the months and years to come. There also needs to be an awareness, understanding, and compassion for children who have had developmental and emotional disruptions (including missing big life benchmarks like birthdays, religious observations, prom, and graduation) and the disconnection from school-based health and mental health services that may impact their wellbeing now, and in the future.

For case managers, therapists, and counselors, the challenges to provide support and maintain connection are compounded by a situation that requires distance. With this awareness, trauma-informed approaches need to be adapted with new sensitivities:

Some of this will look quite differently in a virtual setting. For instance, the receptionist may not have much interaction with the people being served right now, but if accounting and billing does, there needs to be an abundance of understanding and flexibility for those who cannot work or even seek new employment. Meeting a survivor “where they are” may mean joining them by video or phone, but there may not be the needed space and privacy to speak openly and safely.

Those working in human services can also spend time actively focusing on and building protective factors with the people they serve. Affording flexibility, increasing connection, offering alternative options for communication, discussing outside supports, referring to other providers that might be needed, redefining goals, developing peer support networks, and revisiting needs regularly will all help to maintain a healthy and healing relationship. Case managers, clinical practitioners, peer support specialists, counselors, and others can find the best path forward with each person they work with by exploring these protective factors.

Spotlight: Trauma-Informed Services for Homeless Veterans

Shonda manages a staff of seven in a program providing employment services to veterans transitioning out of homelessness. Whether in their military service, during their experience of homelessness, or from another time in their lives, many of the veterans she and her staff served experienced traumatic events and continued to experience trauma as a result. To better understand and serve these individuals, Shonda began to research trauma-informed care. She quickly decided that her first step would be to get in touch with veterans that she had served before, to hear their perspective on her services. She was careful to raise the subject in a way that would be comfortable for the veterans and would not re-traumatize them.

But now, Shonda and her staff face a new challenge: COVID 19 has changed the services provided, the daily experiences of staff, and the veterans they serve. On a video call with staff, they discussed taking extra time to build connections. Virtual interactions are not as ‘rich’ as being face to face, and they require taking extra time to connect on a personal level by asking about and sharing personal details – in a way that is comfortable for both staff and the veterans they serve. The group also discussed encouraging veterans to check in on one another, while maintaining social distancing.

Staff explored ways ensure they were not unintentionally coercing veterans, without being able to observe body language and physical cues. Staff all agreed that they would take time to speak with veterans about COVID-19, to hear their response to the current situation and the added stress it was causing. They would do whatever was in their power to ensure that veterans were safe, that they were taking healthy steps to deal with stress, and they had supports in place to address re-traumatization.

To learn more, including additional case study spotlights, read Manhattan Strategy Group’s Topical Brief: Trauma-Informed COVID-19 Considerations in Virtual Human Services.

Blog Authors: Cori Di Biasi, Helga Luest, and Jessica Rebarber


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  • Trauma-Informed Approaches Adapted with COVID-19 Sensitivity

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