Healing-Centered Engagement: The New Focus for Wellness

The focus on trauma and traumatic experiences in health care, education and child welfare has represented a new awareness of the impact trauma has on the way individuals and families navigate their daily lives. Trauma impacts the body, mental health and the learning process. Behaviors and coping skills can be directly traced to trauma responses.

Being trauma-focused, however, is to view and approach others in a deficit mode. What happens is that this approach is still grounded in the notion of ‘what’s wrong?’ AND ‘what happened to you?’. Interventions and engagement between practitioners and individuals spend too much time delving into the trauma itself. The time spent should be goal and action-oriented and healing-centered.

While trauma-informed, as a backdrop to engaging others as a helping professional, the process of healing should take center stage.  With young people, for example, trauma-informed approaches refer to a set of principles that guide and direct how we view the impact of severe harm on mental, physical and emotional health. It speaks to the whole person, rather than individual symptoms or specific behaviors.

In schools, leaders almost universally believed that the best way to address disruptive behaviors is through harsh discipline. In this way, discipline alone was seen as appropriate and sufficient to modify undesired behaviors in the classroom. However, for young people who may have experienced trauma, this approach re-traumatizes and does further harm. A trauma-informed approach may offer therapy or counseling to support the student’s well-being, rather than discipline.  

There are limitations to that approach. There is the risk of associating a young person with their traumatic experiences. In other words, we risk defining youth by their trauma. That is unfair, because they are more than their experiences. It can create a blind spot when we focus interventions solely around the trauma.

That approach is incomplete in that way. It assumes that trauma is an individual experience or event, when it could in fact, be a collective one. Collective trauma requires a different approach than a individual one. Children living in environments with frequent exposure to violence, will share a collective trauma. Being trauma-informed is helpful, but doesn’t consider the context or the root causes of trauma in communities.

By treating only the trauma experienced by the individual or the collective, we leave those toxic systems, policies and practices in place-unchanged. When speaking to promoting resilience in youth, essentially, we are asking them to continue to adapt, adjust and cope with whatever they are confronted by in their daily lives. We are sending the message that we will not address the part of the equation that is in their environment: systems, policies and practices. These will not change; so, they must ‘get used to it’. Remain healthy, when everything around you is bombarding and overwhelming the capacity to cope.

How long will we continue to ask children, specifically black and brown and lower income families, to be resilient amidst ongoing systemic inequity? The fact that there are collective experiences of trauma, whereby the signs and symptoms are commonly presented, is an indication of something greater than the children themselves. When we  focus only on the ‘patient’, without addressing the environmental factors that influence the way the ‘patient’ presents to us, we simply ensure the continuation of ‘treatment’. It also guarantees that there will be an ongoing client or patient population– infinitely. Where is the healing, the solutions-focused approach?

Focusing on reducing or eliminating pathology[trauma] rather than promoting possibility[well-being] is where a trauma-informed approach is limited. The absence of disease doesn’t constitute health. The absence of violence also doesn’t indicate peace. Aiming to reduce negative behaviors, reduction pathology[anxiety, anger, fear, distrust, sadness…], doesn’t constitute or help to create well-being[hope, happiness, imagination, aspirations, trust].

Children want to be happy as does everyone else, not just have less misery. Focusing on enhancing conditions that promote and contribute to well-being offers a holistic view of healing from traumatic experiences and environments through a fresh set of lenses. Healing centered, as opposed to trauma-informed, is holistic. It involves culture, civic action, spirituality and collective healing. This approach, Healing-Centered Engagement[HCE], views trauma not simply as an individual isolated experience, but rather highlights the ways trauma and healing are experienced collectively.

The term expands how we think about our responses to trauma and offers a more broadened and inclusive approach to fostering well-being. HCE is strengths-based and re-centers culture as a central feature in well-being. We re-frame trauma with language that is humanizing, and ask the question of ‘whats right with you’ instead of ‘what happened to you’. It views those who’ve been exposed to trauma as agents in the creation of their own well-being as opposed to victims of traumatic events.

The healing centered approach comes from the idea that people are not harmed in a vacuum, and well-being comes from participating in transforming the root causes of the harm within institutions. Healing centered engagement also advances the move to “strengths-based’ care and away from the deficit based mental health models that drives therapeutic interventions. There are four key elements of healing centered engagement:

  1. Healing centered engagement is explicitly political, rather than clinical.             Communities, and individuals who experience trauma are agents in restoring their own well-being. This subtle shift suggests that healing from trauma is found in an awareness and actions that address the conditions that created the trauma in the first place. Researchers have found that well-being is a function of the control and power young people have in their schools and communities (Morsillo & Prilleltensky 2007; Prilleltensky & Prilleltensky 2006). These studies focus on concepts such as such as liberation, emancipation, oppression, and social justice among activist groups and suggests that building an awareness of justice and inequality, combined with social action such as protests, community organizing, and/or school walk-outs contribute to overall well-being, hopefulness, and optimism (Potts 2003; Prilleltensky 2003, 2008). This means that healing centered engagement views trauma and well-being as function of the environments where people live, work and play. When people advocate for policies and opportunities that address causes of trauma, such as lack of access to mental health, these activities contribute to a sense of purpose, power and control over life situations. All of these are ingredients necessary to restore well-being and healing.
  2. Healing centered engagement is culturally grounded and views healing as the restoration of identity.                                                                                                             The pathway to restoring well-being among young people who experience trauma can be found in culture and identity. Healing centered engagement uses culture as a way to ground young people in a solid sense of meaning, self-perception, and purpose. This process highlights the inter-sectional nature of identity and highlights the ways in which culture offers a shared experience, community and sense of belonging. Healing is experienced collectively, and is shaped by shared identity such as race, gender, or sexual orientation. Healing centered engagement is the result of building a healthy identity, and a sense of belonging. For youth of color, these forms of healing can be rooted in culture and serves as an anchor to connect young people to a shared racial and ethnic identity that is both historical grounded and contemporarily relevant.
  3. Healing centered engagement is asset driven and focuses well being we want, rather than symptoms we want to suppress.                                                                     An asset driven strategy acknowledges that young people are much more than the worst thing that happened to them, and builds upon their experiences, knowledge, skills and curiosity as positive traits to be enhanced. While it is important to acknowledge trauma and its influence on young people’s mental health, healing centered strategies move one step beyond by focusing on what we want to achieve, rather than merely treating emotional and behavioral symptoms of trauma. This is a salutogenic approach focusing on how to foster and sustain well-being. Based in positive psychology, healing centered engagement is based in collective strengths and possibility.
  4. Healing centered engagement supports adult providers with their own healing.                                                                                                                             Healing is an ongoing process that we all need, not just young people who experience trauma. The well-being of the adult youth worker is also a critical factor in supporting young peoples’ well-being.  Healing centered engagement has an explicit focus on restoring, and sustaining the adults who attempt to heal youth- a healing the healers approach.


Coming up next, the critical components of healing centered engagement, practical applications and the positive implications of effective practices.


4 thoughts on “Healing-Centered Engagement: The New Focus for Wellness

  1. Yes!! Love this! I’m actually doing a training on healing center engagement in September!


    1. Being informed by trauma is only one part of the equation. Next step- healing-that’s the goal and advocating for changing those systems, policies and practices which caused the trauma. That is exciting news!


      1. Yes! It is a more inclusive approach! I’m excited to share more info about this with our local school districts!


      2. That sounds great! What’s your general location? Do you work virtually, as well? FYI: NYC schools has recently sent out notices asking for proposals for PD in numerous areas.


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