According to Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the U.S., “mental health challenges are the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people. Unfortunately, in recent years, we’ve seen significant increases in certain mental health disorders in youth, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.”1 All of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Youth and workforce development professionals and organizations must address mental health as a core component of all their programs and services. At Social Capital Builders (SCB), we apply a trauma-informed approach to the work we do with youth and adults.
Trauma and Attachment Styles
Chronic stress in a person’s life without adequate support can lead to chronic PTSD and insecure styles of attachment. Attachment styles describe the way an individual thinks, feels, and acts in close relationships. First identified in the late 1950s by British psychologist John Bowlby and developed in the 70s by Mary Ainsworth, attachment theory describes four types of attachment styles:
- Secure attachment
- Avoidant (aka dismissive or anxious-avoidant)
- Anxious (aka preoccupied or anxious-ambivalent)
- Disorganized (aka fearful-avoidant)
People can have secure or insecure attachment styles with anxiousness or avoidance often an indicator of the latter. At SCB, our experience and research recognize that one’s ability to develop bonding, bridging, and linking social capital in life is lower for individuals who experience extreme poverty, homelessness, discrimination, abuse, and neglect. These life experiences are also shown to cause insecure attachment in both children and adults.
Gillath et al. (2017)2 said those with an insecure attachment style have issues relating to trust and closeness. “If you’re high on attachment avoidance, you’re trying to avoid intimacy and tend not to trust others — downplaying the importance of emotions and relationships,” they said. “Conversely, if you’re high on attachment anxiety, you’re very concerned with rejection and abandonment and tend to be overwhelmed by emotions. Being low on both— securely attached — associates with long, stable, satisfying relationships.”
An understanding of attachment styles is essential for social capital building and absolutely critical for adults who promote any form of mentoring. Attachment styles have a direct effect on how individuals interact with others. When facilitating social capital building between members in a network, attachment styles are relevant. When these members have been adversely affected by trauma, addressing it increases the likelihood of successful social capital building. A person with an anxious attachment style may struggle with emotional regulation and need extra encouragement and external validation to build a strong relationship. On the other hand, a person with an avoidant attachment style may need more time to develop trust through repeated actions as well as more support in understanding the value of social connections.
While the way that we support youth and adults with insecure attachment styles may be different from how we support those with more secure attachment, they should not be overlooked from gaining the social capital that is so critical to their long-term economic and social success
They need social accommodations similar to how we provide academic accommodations to students with learning disabilities. Understanding how to help people identify attachment styles in others and modify actions appropriately is key to a trauma-informed approach. Understanding attachment styles also helps with understanding trauma
What Is a Trauma Response?
Trauma can have negative effects on relationships and health including weakening the immune system and increasing the risk of heart disease later in life.3 Emotionally, trauma can cause us to feel unsafe, on guard, scared, etc. in situations where we are actually physically safe.
Common trauma responses include:
- Mood swings
- Intense emotions
- Burst of anger
- Resistance to help
- Inconsistent sleep patterns
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of trust in others
Evidence of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean a person is experiencing a trauma response. They may have an unrelated mental or physical ailment. That is why it’s so key to get to know people as whole human beings to understand the context of their behaviors and emotions. Adults who interact with youth and adults on a regular basis are best equipped to identify these trauma responses and the context behind them. They may more easily notice body language, tone and mood changes, and other cues that a person is experiencing a trauma response.
Addressing Trauma Through Social Connections
Have you ever tried to talk to a person who just wouldn’t “let you in”? It’s easy to see how many of the common trauma responses listed above could hinder the development of social capital including resistance to help and lack of trust in others. Traumatized people may try to push away anyone who is trying to support them even when they need it the most. A trauma-informed approach recognizes these behaviors for what they are – a cry for help – and responds accordingly.
Social capital building can only be effective for individuals struggling with trauma if the trauma is properly acknowledged and healing takes place. Social capital building is not an alternative to therapy, but it can serve to complement mental health services. For people with PTSD, interpersonal relationships often come with a lot of triggers. Therapy can help people identify their triggers and process them while trauma-informed social capital building can help them reprocess through positive (non-triggering) interpersonal interactions. Social capital building gives people a chance to practice skills they learn in therapy with other adults to expand their support system beyond just a therapist and/or social worker.
A trauma-informed approach to social capital building must also acknowledge that youth who have experienced trauma in childhood are more likely to be re-traumatized.4 Therefore, the support networks of these young people must be aware of the young people’s triggers and ways to interact with them that avoid triggers.
Retraumatization is not simply experiencing the trauma again. It can also occur through conscious or unconscious reminders of previous trauma even when no current danger is present. Social capital training for adults including family members, developmental connections, and industry stakeholders must include education about how trauma impacts relationship building and how to de-escalate interpersonal and intrapersonal crises in order to avoid re-traumatization.
Rebuilding Trust Builds Social Capital
Trust is one of the most important factors of strong social capital relationships. However, a study conducted by Social Capital Builders found that 36% of high school students surveyed do not believe that adults are generally trustworthy. Youth with insecure attachment styles also struggle with trusting others. Without addressing this lack of trust, social capital training would not be effective for these young people. That’s why our social capital training commences with helping youth and adults identify and connect with the familial and developmental personal assets already existent in their network – the people who care about them and the people who they care about. From there, the social capital snowball grows in and outside of their networks. From this starting point, social capital building can help to rebuild not only trust but resiliency and self-esteem.
It’s important to note that not all relationships should be repaired. A trauma-informed approach differs from a restorative justice approach in that it acknowledges that when trauma has occurred, the victim may choose to completely remove that person from their life as a form of protection. Members of a young person’s support system should be careful not to recommend reconciliation with a previous abuser. If the young person initiates or expresses interest in reconciliation, then it would be appropriate to support them in those efforts.
1 Murthy, V. H. (2022). The Mental Health of Minority and Marginalized Young People: An Opportunity for Action. Public Health Reports, 137(4), 613–616. https://doi.org/10.1177/00333549221102390
Figley, C. R. (2012). Retraumatization. In Encyclopedia of trauma: An interdisciplinary guide (Vol. 1, pp. 570-573). SAGE Publications, Inc., https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452218595.n192
Edward DeJesus is the Founder and CEO of Social Captial Builders. Learn more about the central role that social capital plays in Restorative Justice, education, and workforce development from the Social Capital Builders blog.