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Women Benefit from a Gender-Specific Approach to Trauma Care – as seen in the Globe and Mail

Women are typically exposed to more interpersonal forms of trauma from an earlier age, but there is a shortage of trauma care resources designed for this group.
women talking in therapy

Trauma doesn’t discriminate, but it does impact people differently.

This is particularly true when it comes to gender. Per the American Psychological Association, “women… are typically exposed to more interpersonal and high-impact trauma, such as sexual assault, than men, and at a younger age.” This clearly speaks to the need for a different approach to treating women’s trauma and their mental health care.

That is why Homewood Health Centre, an Ontario-based, nationally recognized treatment centre for mental health and addiction, will be launching a women’s trauma treatment program early this year. This unique inpatient program is designed to treat women experiencing trauma as well as other mental health and addiction issues and is inclusive of all who identify as female.

Homewood Health Centre is celebrating its 140th anniversary of providing mental health care to Canadians. As part of this milestone anniversary, the organization is strengthening its long-term commitment to this underserved population through new research, education and programming. This new program is a key component of that commitment.

What is trauma?

To start, it’s important to understand what trauma means and how it can impact people’s lives. While there are a lot of different ways to define trauma, Dr. Hygge Schielke, a Psychologist and Trauma Services Development Lead at Homewood Health Centre explains: “Although certain kinds of events are recognized as traumatic, there is actually no single, widely accepted definition of trauma. What we have found resonates most is to describe traumatic events as experiences that are too overwhelming to make sense of and break trust with the world, oneself, and others, with ongoing effects as a result.”

PTSD symptoms can have a profound impact on quality of life. Typically, PTSD symptoms manifest in one of four ways: intrusive memories; avoidance; negative changes in thinking and mood (for example, memory problems, negative thoughts, difficulty maintaining close relationships, emotional numbness); and changes in physical and emotional reactions (for example, trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, self-destructive behaviour).

Why develop a trauma program specifically for women?

While PTSD symptoms can manifest regardless of gender, there are often other important considerations that must be taken into account to provide women with the treatment they need.

“Many of the women we see have complex trauma, which means they have experienced repeated exposure to traumatic events, often beginning in childhood. For many, this can be intergenerational, leading to even more complexity,” says Dr. Yelena Chorny, Homewood Health Centre’s Chief of Addiction Medicine and Trauma Services.

“This trauma can often lead to experiences of shame, self-blame and generally not feeling safe, especially around men,” Chorny continues. “This is why receiving treatment in a mixed-gender setting is something many women are not comfortable with, ultimately preventing them from effectively moving forward.”

A women’s trauma treatment program will provide a unique therapeutic environment to address mental health needs and build skills to support recovery.

“While the core needs of those who have experienced trauma are the same regardless of gender, some women may require additional support in the way that they access care,” says Kerry Manthenga, Director of Homewood’s Clinical Operations – Addiction and Trauma Services.

“We’re always talking about the individual impacts of trauma, but these occur in a larger social system, a larger set of norms, a larger set of expectations and beliefs about gender. When you have a more gender-specific setting, you can actually dive a little deeper, take that conversation to another level. For a subset of women, a gender-protected space is what’s needed,” Manthenga says.

Helping these patients learn how to notice when they are emotionally and physically safe can be particularly challenging in mixed treatment environments.

That’s why creating a treatment program for women is paramount, breaking down an often-overlooked barrier to getting help.

“The program is the product of clinical evidence, staff experience and feedback from patients as we deliver trauma care,” Chorny says. “There is hope for people to get better. We see that every day.”

women talking in therapy
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Homewood Health Centre is a fully accredited, physician-led, medically-based inpatient treatment facility offering several specialized programs and extensive services to treat a wide range of mental health issues including trauma, addiction, anxiety, depression as well as co-occurring mental health and addiction issues.

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