Change is a double-sided coin: an excerpt on poverty & trauma

My father once told me, to get to the root of any issue you must ask “why” at least five times.

As a Social Work summer student at Canada Without Poverty, the why behind our various structural problems, like the prevalence of poverty in a country as wealthy as Canada has become a vital question I often ask myself.

What strikes me in my understanding of poverty is that although discussions of “trauma” and trauma-informed practice are not widely discussed, it is a dialogue that must be had within the poverty movement. Because the reality is that poverty is both the cause and effect of trauma, which creates a vicious cycle for individuals and future generations

Trauma is the lasting emotional response that often results from living through distressing events that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. Traumatic events include neglect, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, chronic stress due to conflict in the home, parental separation, exposure to domestic violence or living with a parent battling addiction, depression or illness. Trauma-informed practice responds to the need for a multidisciplinary approach to treating and preventing trauma.

Poverty heightens the risk of trauma, which is exacerbated by chronic stressors low-income individuals experience daily. Those living in poverty are constantly faced with distressing environments consisting of financial burdens, food insecurity, insufficient health care, inadequate housing or housing insecurity, discrimination, and unequal access to adequate resources. Experiences of chronic stress and trauma then increase the risk of deeper and more prolonged levels of poverty.

Discriminatory policies and legislation that support the persistence of poverty also play a vital role in how poverty impacts trauma and vice versa. For example, strict requirements and conditions individuals encounter when trying to access social assistance benefits keeps people in a state of uncertainty and fear. This concern over exclusion from necessary benefits only aggravates the experience of stress for many individuals.

We know that there is substantial connection between poverty and well-being. Doctors and health care professionals continually explain that the experience of poverty creates an environment where the physical and mental health of those in poverty go largely unnoticed. For example, although stress hormones are protective in certain cases, chronic stress and high levels of stress hormones can lead to the deterioration of multiple organ systems, including the brain. One can experience chronic health conditions, difficulties in managing emotions and creating attachment to others, learning difficulties and mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and PTSD, leading to increased suicide risk and early death.

According to our American neighbors, families living in urban poverty often encounter multiple traumas over many years and up to 91% of children living in substandard neighborhoods experience events that leave them traumatized. Poverty creates circumstances detrimental to physical and mental health which are then intensified by a lack of accessibility to resources that combats these effects, largely due to insufficient social policy.

Poverty, trauma and inadequate policies create a cycle that further marginalizes those in poverty; which must be addressed simultaneously. Let’s start to create better support for those experiencing trauma, while also incorporating preventative and comprehensive policies to lift people out of poverty. As of right now, we are failing to do so despite Canada’s wealth and, more notably, in spite of Canada’s legal obligations to address human rights.

Looking forward

While those living in poverty are at an increased risk of experiencing trauma, 76% of Canadians experience trauma at some point in their lifetime. Therefore, addressing and supporting both trauma-informed practices and poverty reduction strategies would benefit our country on a personal and national level. When united, we can ensure that universal human rights don’t go unnoticed.

With the multitude of questions I ask myself, I leave you with these last ones. Why allow the continuous suffering of individuals and communities when we know the causes and the solutions? Why aren’t trauma and poverty treated as an emergency health concern, when in effect they are? Lastly, why aren’t we all talking about this?

Want a better understanding of trauma-informed practice and poverty reduction? Here are some talking points.

Trauma-informed practice:

Poverty reduction strategies:

Tamara O’Connor is a Research and Community Engagement Associate, Summer Student at Canada Without Poverty. She is currently a student in Carleton’s Bachelor of Social Work program.

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