Leading the Way in Trauma Therapy

Maybe there’s no nice way to say this, but I’ll give it a try.

First of all, I’m not trying to put anyone down. Someone wants to tell their story, more power to them. But (you knew there was a but coming, right?) I just wish some of the stories went farther.

A famous person – from sports, politics, pop culture – discloses having been abused. This is good, it models disclosure, puts the shame on the abuser and not the victim. It can help other people to speak, maybe for the first time, about what happened to them.

A survivor of horrible abuse or other life tragedy writes his or her life story, and how he or she struggled for so many years and finally (maybe even with therapy) learned how to cope with the symptoms... Again, it’s great we have stories like this out there, it gives hope to others and maybe inspires them to get there too.

I respect a hero as much as the next person. And given my line of work, I know all too well what they've had to overcome. But when I hear someone’s story, and it ends with “I finally learned how to cope with my symptoms,” I hear a lost opportunity.

There are some really good (proven-effective, well-tolerated, efficient) trauma resolution methods out there by now. These generally give far better results than merely learning good coping skills. For example, Tonya Edmonds and colleagues compared EMDR (one of my favorite trauma resolution methods) to “eclectic” therapy (mainly cognitive-behavioral training [CBT] plus some prolonged exposure, as per personal communication at a conference some years ago) for female adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. At post-treatment, the treatments seemed to be about equally effective on the outcome measures, and at 3 months follow-up, the eclectic/CBT group had deteriorated a bit while the EMDR group had made further gains (Edmonds, Rubin, & Wambach, 1999). Most striking, though, was what they learned from the exit interviews after that follow-up assessment (Edmonds, Sloan, & McCarty, 2004). The women in the eclectic/CBT group said, in essence, “This treatment was really good – it helped me to cope with my symptoms,” whereas the women in the EMDR group said, in essence, “This treatment was really good – I’m healed, so I don’t have to cope with my symptoms anymore.”

The difference between coping and healing is profound, and healing is available. My mission has been to develop and disseminate effective trauma treatment, so more people can heal from trauma and loss, and have better lives. So here’s my problem.

These role models are often good models, but I wish they were better. I wish they modeled more than telling without shame, more than learning to cope... I wish they also modeled healing. They have so much air time, so much influence to let others know that healing is there to be had, if you do the work, with a properly trained therapist. With role models modeling healing, maybe more people would get their own healing done.

(I do recognize that this is my problem, not theirs. If I do a better job of disseminating effective trauma treatment, then more of the role models will get some. Lots of work to do!)

References

Edmond, T., Rubin, A., & Wambach, K. (1999). The effectiveness of EMDR with adult female survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Social Work Research, 23, 103-116.

Edmond, T., Sloan, L., & McCarty, D. (2004). Sexual abuse survivors’ perceptions of the effectiveness of EMDR and eclectic therapy: A mixed-methods study. Research on Social Work Practice, 14, 259-272.

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