To the TCU Faculty and Staff:
There’s a lot of discussion/concern about the mental health of students during these times. Rightfully so. National studies warn about increases in psychological symptoms, substance use and suicide rates among young adults, and the TCU Counseling Center is seeing an unprecedented increase in demand for services. As such, I write this open letter to ask for help.
To be clear, the counseling center has received enormous support from our administration. The university has expanded our Triage & Crisis Response Team, provided HIPAA compliant remote capabilities, supported an Equine Assisted Therapy Program (yes, with real horses), maintained our 24/7 counseling phone line, funded a specialized clinical program for students with high mental health needs and adopted our call for a trauma-informed campus. Even fellow counseling center directors comment that TCU’s ability to respond to students during these times is better than many institutions.
However, the TCU community is larger than the administration, and it’s not just the mental health of students that I’m worried about. I’ve preached to students for years that “whatever affects you as a person can affect you as a learner.” To the faculty and staff, I give the same sermon, “whatever affects you as a person can affect your ability to educate and support our students.” Sadly, as students talk about the interpersonal dynamics on campus, it’s apparent that many of us, if not most of the faculty and staff, have been traumatized in 2020.
It’s not a criticism to acknowledge trauma. I freely acknowledge that 2020 has been a traumatic year and the most challenging in my life. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines individual trauma as experiencing a physical or emotional harmful event that could potentially be life threatening, has lasting adverse effects (longer than four weeks) and significantly impairs normal functioning. My colleague, Dr. Brian Dixon at the School of Medicine, expands this definition to include “a major stressor that happens to you that is beyond your control and fundamentally changes your understanding of the world.”
Using these definitions, and considering the impact of the pandemic, economic uncertainty and the national spotlight on racial tensions, it’s obvious that many people in the global community have experienced some type of emotional trauma within the past six months. This is vastly important because there are expected responses to trauma, and many communities, including the TCU campus, are displaying these responses.
Most are aware of the fight-flight (and freeze) response to physical threats and trauma. In an interpersonal context, the fight response is associated to what we call “Moving Against Others.” This pattern of response is highlighted by externalizing behaviors such as verbal or physical aggression, defiance and confrontation. Individuals likely experience helplessness and seek some type of empowerment and control. As such, conflict serves as tangible resistance to emotional threats. Sending rude emails and voicemails, being easily frustrated with others and acting as if colleagues are the enemy are all examples of ‘Moving Against Others.”
The flight response to physical threats and trauma is associated with the interpersonal pattern of “Moving Away from Others.” This is highlighted by internalizing behaviors such as withdrawing, avoidance or acting as if the threat doesn’t exist. Individuals may deny or minimize risks because accepting reality is too threatening. Not following health guidelines, refusing to take a stand on certain issues and stigmatizing others as if everyone is a personal threat are all examples of “Moving Away from Others.”
Before I talk about the third interpersonal trauma response, I ask everyone to do a quick self-assessment:
- Have you displayed a pattern of “Moving Against Others?” Have you sent an email to someone that was more confrontational than the situation called for? Have you been more critical of others, snapped at a student in a way that was harsher than needed or attempted to exert power and control during times in which you felt scared?
- Have you displayed a pattern of “Moving Away from Others?” Has anxiety caused you to disconnect from the TCU community (even when you’re not on campus), have you minimized the personal struggles of others, or have you treated students as if none of them follow CDC guidelines?
- Has anyone in your personal life displayed patterns of “Moving Against” or “Moving Away?” If a spouse, partner, adult/senior parent, child or friend are displaying these patterns, then it’s possible that their behaviors don’t reflect them as a person and might be a signal that they are dealing with their own trauma.
The third interpersonal response to trauma is “Moving Toward Others.” This pattern includes seeking safety by joining with others, being a part of something that is bigger than oneself, care-taking and finding purpose in relationships. Despite what some might think, many students are displaying this pattern. Examples include joining community reading programs for young kids, participating in the TCU Virtual Letter of Care campaign to send words of encouragement to each other, organizing social justice events/demonstrations and promoting campaigns such as Protect the Purple. As one student challenged me, “What are the faculty and staff doing to bring the TCU community, the whole TCU community, together?” I didn’t have an answer to this student and such a challenge is bigger than one staff person can answer.
If my words relate to you, then I highly suggest enhancing your self-care. TCU has a great Employee Assistance Program, and I’ve personally given faculty and staff recommendations for therapists to help them process trauma. (The EAP offers five visits at no charge to employees or their dependents and video calls are available.) All three of the interpersonal patterns can be adaptive at times, but we serve as a model to our students. The more trauma-informed responses we can give, the more likely our students will succeed, thrive and seek help. Furthermore, TCU is one of the first institutions to formally support initiatives to create a trauma-informed campus, with a special emphasis on culturally-based trauma. This work has already started, and I welcome anyone to attend one of our trainings and/or join our efforts.
In closing, I want to thank the TCU Community. I’ve served TCU for 13 years, but this was my first year as director of the counseling center. What a year to be a new director! Many have rallied around the counseling center and supported me and my staff during these times. I appreciate this. However, what will make the most impact is if we all rally around each other. My hope is that we work together to promote awareness of the fact that all members of the community have been subjected to trauma; protect marginalized communities on campus while safeguarding against re-traumatization; and foster safety, connection, and coping to encourage healing from trauma. I firmly believe that TCU is in a better position to do this than many other institutions.
Eric Wood, Ph.D., LPC
Director - TCU Counseling and Mental Health