So why should nonprofit leaders care about trauma?
Trauma is a pervasive problem. It results from exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening, with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning as well as mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being. Experiences that may be traumatic include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; childhood neglect; and/or living with a family member with a mental health or substance use disorder.

A large study of childhood trauma found that more than half (60%) of American adults report experiencing at least one traumatic incident before the age of 18 —  and 25% report three or more. This is especially alarming because childhood trauma has been found to be related to physical ailments in adulthood (asthma, hypertension, stroke, cardiovascular disease), behavioral health challenges (depression, anxiety, substance misuse), and social challenges (unemployment, homelessness). The higher the number of traumatic incidents during childhood, the higher the likelihood of negative impacts in adulthood.

So, chances are a number of your nonprofit staff may still be trying to work through individual childhood trauma — perhaps a greater number than you imagine.

And then there’s collective trauma.
Trauma can also affect populations of people, such as neighborhoods, or even an entire country. For example, racism has a highly traumatic impact on people of color. Poverty and violence in the community can be equally traumatic to multiple groups.

Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts began predicting that a behavioral health crisis would arise during the pandemic. Rates of depression, anxiety, and substance misuse would theoretically increase, as would family violence.

Unfortunately, the experts were right. In 2022, Mental Health America found that the number of people looking online for help with their mental health increased significantly from 2019-2021. In 2021, over 5.4 million people took an online mental health screen, a nearly 500% increase over the number in 2019 and a 103% increase over 2020. The study also revealed that there were significant increases in the percentage of people scoring at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety, and psychotic-like experiences from 2019-2021. Not only were the predictions coming true, but we were also recognizing our own challenges as well as the need to reach out for help.

For many, COVID-19 not only caused collective trauma but also exacerbated past trauma. As the research indicates, this trauma — collective and past — presents significant lifelong challenges. As such, it is unrealistic for nonprofit leaders to expect that staff members would not bring trauma to work with them.

Read the full article about trauma in nonprofit organizations by Inga James at Blue Avocado.