(Dr. Rocio Chang, Dr. Julian Ford, Carolyn Pennington, Chris DeFrancesco, August 2023)
Chris: Their superpowers are resiliency and tenacity, and they use those powers to help address developmental trauma disorders in young people. Today on the Pulse, we learn about the Trauma Avengers.
This is the UConn Health Pulse, a podcast to help you get to know UConn Health and its people a little better, and ideally leave you with some health information you’ll find useful.
With Carolyn Pennington, I’m Chris DeFrancesco. The Trauma Avengers are part of a nationwide child and adolescent behavioral health project led by two clinical psychologists at UConn Health.
Carolyn: The idea is to help shape best practices for therapists working with children and adolescents who have been through a traumatic experience, enlisting the help of teen actors and actresses, reenacting challenging therapy sessions. Here to tell us more about this and their work at the Center for the Treatment of Developmental Trauma Disorders at UConn Health are the clinical psychologists Chris just mentioned, Dr. Julian Ford and Dr. Rocio Chang. Thank you both for joining us.
Dr. Ford: Thank you, Carolyn.
Dr. Chang: Thank you.
Carolyn: Let’s start with you, Dr. Chang. You started the Center for the Treatment of Developmental Trauma Disorders at UConn Health about six years ago. Describe what the objectives are and how it works.
Dr. Chang: Well, I had the privilege to work with my colleague here, Dr. Ford, who is the one that started CTDTD, and what we had in mind was to bring more awareness about what to do in therapy when we face, clinicians face, critical moments. So new clinicians, and also any level clinician, can really benefit from learning more what other colleagues do during critical moments in sessions. So we open up the doors and we were able to, together with many different wonderful colleagues, put a series of webinars. Right now there are up to more than 40 webinars talking about important moments and also important therapeutic interactions.
We started working with a nice theatre group called Looking In, led by Jonathan Gilman, where they did improvised theater. These kids were actually trained to do improvised theater, and they would go and have different themes and talk about real experiences that happened to many adolescents. And also the themes were very important to bring more awareness about important topics that sometimes adolescents do not have opportunities to discuss openly, such as sexual abuse, experiencing domestic violence, bullying, many of these topics that are very important and relevant, but it’s also important to talk about it in a very contained and safe environment.
So we started working with this theatre group. These kids were trained by many people, community leaders, about these important topics, but they also were able to bring their own voices to different experiences, and they developed their own skits, and then they presented it to large audiences in schools, in detention centers, in outpatient settings. And then after that, they were giving feedback to the audience by answering questions that the audience will ask them. So we got this sort of method to bring more into what we do in therapy. So that was the innovative part that usually therapists do not get the opportunity to do.
Carolyn: So the webinars are these actors and actresses, and then how did they know what to say? I mean, I know they’re probably good at improvisation, but how did they really know how to act like they have gone through a developmental trauma?
Dr. Ford: Well, these are young people who themselves have often experienced trauma. We didn’t specifically ask them to do this work because they had experienced trauma, but unfortunately, so many adolescents pre-adolescents these days have experienced events that are traumatic for them, whether it’s violence in the community or the home or school, or losses that occur as a result.
So these are young people who knew about trauma. Sometimes it was because of friends that they had. Sometimes it wasn’t themselves or family members. So they drew on their personal experiences, and they were able then to bring to life these characters. And the characters that they played, the clients in these therapy sessions, are fictional, so there’s no privacy concerns and it’s entirely safe for them as well, which is very important. But they were able to actually show us, as professionals, what it’s like to be a young person who’s dealing with the modern world, and when trauma is added on top of that. And then that led us and our producer and director, Ed Wierzbicki, who’s really guided this whole project brilliantly, to think, well if we can see what happens in a therapy session with these young people, and we kind of pull back the veil as Dr. Chang said, and show something that most people never have a chance to see, but in a way that’s not shocking or terrifying that actually shows how therapy can be incredibly helpful and how resilient these young people are, what about taking it the next step? And how about if we find a way to get inside of these young people’s heads and actually learn about what they are thinking about, not just what they say in a therapy session, but their most private thoughts?
And that’s how the Trauma Avengers program, which is also called the Digital Diaries, that evolved, because we then were able to ask these actors and actresses to do tapes of sessions that they did, not with a therapist, but where they spoke into their own mobile phones and they did a diary, a spoken diary about their experiences in life. And the amazing thing about that was that these diaries often start with the awful things that have happened to them, or the stresses that they’re dealing with in their current life that aren’t traumatic, but that are just really difficult as adolescents can be. But they move almost seamlessly into describing the strength, the resilience, the core values that they have, what sustains them, the relationships that are absolutely vital to them. And so we see in these digital diaries, or actually we hear, we see and hear these young people moving from feeling as though they’re victims and as though they’ve been experiencing events that they can’t understand and can’t deal with to beginning to recognize they have enormous strengths.
And that’s why we call it “The Trauma Avengers,” because these are young people who are avenging trauma. They’re not getting revenge. They’re not doing unto others what has been done to them. Instead, they are finding a way to create a path toward justice and they are advocating first for themselves. And once they begin to realize that they have worth, and that they deserve the kind of advocacy that we all want young people to have, then they actually shift their focus and begin to think about others as well, their friends, their family. And this really becomes a story, not of trauma, but of overcoming trauma.
Chris: We’re gonna play a clip of a little bit of what these digital diaries sound like.
(audio clip): There’s just a lot to think about, and I don’t really have anyone to talk to…. Sometimes I feel like I don’t wanna be a part of this family anymore…. How do I talk about something I, I don’t remember?… I just, I don’t know what I am anymore and I’m scared. Because I feel like I have no control.
Chris: Now, that was kind of a montage of some of the reenactments, I guess. So these are, again, these are not true stories, these are the actors and actresses, portrayals of the kinds of thoughts they’re going through, these child and adolescent, these teens who have experienced some type of developmental trauma. And I wanted to get a quick distinction from either or both of you. There’s trauma and then there’s developmental trauma. So that sounds like a specific kind of a subset. Does that have to do with where you are in your development as a human? And that’s why we’re talking about it in this age group?
Dr. Ford: Exactly, Chris. Developmental trauma refers to the kinds of experiences that are shocking, horrifying, sometimes abusive, but that not only have that edge of threat and danger and harm, but also that affect a young person’s entire development. And we use the term “developmental” to indicate that this is something that it doesn’t just leave bad memories, but it can actually change the course of a young person’s life.
And in the Trauma Avengers series, what we hope to show, and what we believe that these young people brilliantly show, is that they start, as Gabby did in that montage, with the deep sense of hurt and anguish that trauma can cause, and they don’t get past that entirely, but they move forward into the future as you also heard.
And that’s really the crucial message, that these are young people who are not stuck in the past. They are affected by the past and that has affected who they are as people, but they are moving into the future and their strengths and their resilience is really the story.
And I’ll just add one other thing, which is that we also, in this series, we hear from their therapists. So we actually get a glimpse of what their therapists are thinking and how their therapists are learning from these young people, and working on ways to help these young people recover and overcome the traumas that they’ve experienced.
Chris: And I believe some of those therapists who appear in the videos are among us here, correct?
Dr. Chang: Yes. And this was actually a very good experience because we had more therapists, Dr. Ernestine Briggs-King and Dr. Michael Gomez, were also part of the team. And this was actually developed during the pandemic, believe it or not, with many Zoom meetings. And we met with the young adults, the children who are part of the Trauma Avengers on several occasions to train together and work in collaboration.
And I believe it is a very innovative way to do it because oftentimes we see clients once per week or once every other week, and sometimes it’s really difficult to have that continuity. But through journaling, through reflecting through these digital diaries, we were able to follow them up even when we were not there, and they were able to talk to us even though we were not really meeting during the sessions. So that I felt was a very effective way to continue that work.
Dr. Ford: That’s a very important point because the digital diaries are actually these young people speaking not to themselves, but to their therapists. So they are writing a diary by speaking, but they’re speaking with someone who they’ve come to realize they can trust in a way that is quite unique.
And so we’re hoping that this can be a resource for therapists to help them understand what’s happening in the minds and inner lives of their clients, but also for youth and young adults themselves to see others who are grappling with the same kinds of challenges that many of them are, and finding ways to discover in themselves and through the therapy how they can actually move forward in their lives, but also for adults, including parents.
This can be a resource for parents to begin to recognize, “Oh, maybe this is something that I’m not going to hear from my son or daughter, but perhaps I can begin to recognize this might be part of what they’re experiencing as well.” Because we know that teenagers are not going to talk about a lot of this with their parents, that’s for sure. But they may talk about it with their therapist. And what we see here is the inner life that is so crucial, and parents may then recognize something that might help them to connect with their son or daughter.
Carolyn: So Dr. Chang, what kind of feedback are you getting from therapists?
Dr. Chang: It’s very positive feedback from therapists. As a matter of fact, they’re very impressed with how well done are these digital diaries, and they are very invested in disseminating this product. So yes, currently we do have an invitation to go and reach out nationally to other therapists online. They are very aware that the product exists and they want to make sure that, to disseminate it to other colleagues.
Chris: What has this taught us about helping young people who are dealing with developmental trauma?
Dr. Ford: Chris, I think the most important thing that we’ve learned is that we need as therapists to enter the world of the young adults that we are working with. And this has shown us that there are ways to do that, that are very comfortable and familiar for young adults using their mobile phones, for example. And this has then enabled us to build a bridge from the traditional world of therapy into the modern world of media and social media, and I think that that’s an incredibly important innovation.
Carolyn: And then, broader picture, how might this format, the digital diaries, be used in other categories of behavioral health? Have you thought about that?
Dr. Chang: That’s an excellent question, thank you. I believe that there can be a template to bring more awareness on other mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety. There are many other ways that we can disseminate information, bringing the voices of the youth to educate us about how they are feeling and how they are interpreting their own symptoms. That could really be a very educational way to bring the information to adults, not only therapists, parents, and also to other children.
Chris: The website is traumaavengers.com. We’ll put that in other information in the show notes.
Dr. Julian Ford is a clinical psychologist, professor of psychiatry and law. Dr. Rocio Chang is also a clinical psychologist at UConn Health, an assistant professor of psychiatry. Together, they are co-directors of the Center for the Treatment of Developmental Trauma Disorders, which is not just at UConn Health, but it’s based here, correct?
Dr. Ford: It is based here. It’s a network of colleagues all over the nation, and it’s part of a network of almost 200 other centers, all focused on helping children and families recover from trauma.
Chris: Fantastic. Thank you so much for being with us. That is our time for today. For Dr. Rocio Chang, Dr. Julian Ford, and Carolyn Pennington. I’m Chris DeFrancesco. Thank you for listening to the UConn Health Pulse. Now be sure to subscribe so you can catch us next time, and please share with a friend.