Trauma affects individuals with disabilities more frequently and at a more profound level than the general population. When those with a disability experience any form of trauma—from a global disaster, an unexpected loss, and physical, sexual or emotional abuse to neglect, abandonment, divorce, parental incarceration, substance abuse and more—the psychological effects can have a lasting impact on their overall wellbeing. In fact, the ongoing emotional effects that persist following the trauma have the potential to cause even more harm, long after the event has passed. Though the threat itself no longer exists, the brain may continue to alert the body to escape a perceived danger.
As a friend or family member of someone with a disability who has experienced trauma, you play an essential role in helping them along their healing journey. Though you can’t erase the past or take away their pain, here are six steps you can take to support your loved one and help them pave a path to recovery:
- Listen, validate, and reassure: Begin with the fundamental understanding that talking about a traumatic event can be difficult for anyone, let alone someone with a disability who may already face communication challenges. Offer a supportive ear but don’t pressure them to talk—and never interrupt when they do. Listen intently, validate their feelings, and acknowledge how difficult their struggle is.
- Help them establish normalcy: When trauma strikes those with disabilities, they tend to feel a pronounced loss of control, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness. Help them get back into a regular routine where they can establish some semblance of control in a predictable environment. The sooner this happens, the better.
- Encourage self-care: Make sure your loved one is getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet (or eating at all), engaging in some form of regular exercise, and limiting alcohol consumption. In addition, encourage them to practice daily hygiene to promote an overall feeling of well-being—things like teeth brushing, bathing, and wearing freshly laundered clothes.
- Infuse a little fun: Engage your loved one in enjoyable activities whenever possible. Suggest a range of options that might pique their interest. Or better yet, ask them to suggest something; the more involved they are in the decision, the more in control they’ll feel and the more likely they’ll be to fully engage in the activity.
- Acknowledge any and all progress: If you see any signs of forward movement in their healing journey, point it out! Help your loved one see that even the smallest step in the right direction is a victory. By helping them to understand that they are making progress, their feelings of hopelessness will begin to dissipate.
- Encourage them to seek professional help: While your support is crucial in helping your loved one heal from trauma, guidance by a professional may also be warranted. More specifically, encourage them to pursue professional support from care teams and healthcare professionals who are trained in trauma-informed care.
By recognizing that a trauma has occurred in your loved one and offering ongoing support, you can help them acknowledge, work through, and heal from it in its wake. You’re not in it alone. At CAU, we have a long history of helping people with disabilities recover from trauma. We work with each person on an individual basis based on their unique circumstances and challenges to help them find inner strength and resilience and positively transform their lives despite past experiences.