The Question Oprah Says We Need to Ask People Who've Experienced Childhood Trauma

On Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey hosted a “60 Minutes” segment exploring a topic that for her, hits close to home — the mental health effects of childhood trauma.

Winfrey has been open in the past about her history of childhood sexual and physical abuse, which she said she experienced from ages 10 to 14. On “60 Minutes,” she shared a fellow survivors’ story, highlighting a treatment framework some experts are using to help those who’ve experienced trauma called trauma-informed care.

Trauma-informed care, Winfrey explained, “focuses on a person’s experiences before trying to correct their behavior, whether it be juvenile delinquency, poor performance in school or out-of-control anger.”

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), care that is trauma-informed recognizes and responds to the consequences of trauma specifically, and works to facilitate healing. Or more simply, Winfrey explained, it can be understood by the distinction between two questions:

It comes down to the question of not, “What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with that kid? Why is he behaving like that,” to, “What happened to you,” which is a very different question.

What happened to you instead of what’s wrong with you. It might seem like a subtle distinction, but Tim Grove, the clinical director at SaintA, an organization highlighted in the segment, says the subtle difference could mean everything for someone who’s struggling with their mental health as a direct result of trauma. “It’s so subtle and yet so profound in terms of how kids experience an adult that approaches them from that angle. They feel safe,” he told Winfrey.

The “60 Minutes” segment also covered ACE tests, a tool mental health professionals may use when practicing trauma-informed care. ACE stands for adverse childhood experiences, and the 10-question test is used to determine what kind of trauma a person experienced. A score on this test can be used as a predictor for future physical and mental problems. For example, Winfrey reported, a high score makes you five times as likely to be depressed and can cut your overall life expectancy by as much as 20 years.

Along with shining light on organizations and people who are working to help those who’ve lived through trauma, the segment ended with another source of hope. When Winfrey asked Dr. Bruce Perry, who she called world’s leading expert on childhood trauma, why are some people able to overcome and thrive despite traumatic childhood experiences while others are not, it came down to one thing: relationships. As Perry said, when someone seemingly pulled themselves up from their bootstraps, “somebody helped you pull up those boots.”

To learn more about trauma-informed care, you can watch the full segment here.

Screenshot via CBC News/60 Minutes

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