Who We Are

Christine Andersen
Photo by Sue Lipsky

Christine Andersen, a survivor: Why I Started the Fund

It was my first hope in founding the fund to promote a deep understanding of trauma–how it fractures the mind, not only because of the overwhelming pain, but because splitting is a way to find comfort.  When students-in-training grasp the core problem of fragmentation (in varying degrees) that results from overwhelming experience, the symptoms become useful tools for helping traumatized clients construct their life narrative–emotionally, psychologically, and physically, in real time and place.  The self-blame, pathological shame and self-loathing that characterize highly traumatized people can be replaced by self-love and acceptance as clients come to understand themselves–who hurt them, how and when they were hurt, and why they hurt themselves.

I wanted to give students tools through enhanced training to be able to effectively diagnose and treat their traumatized clients and to learn to take care of themselves in the process. The first rule of rescue in the water when saving someone from drowning is not to get pulled under yourself.

Every client is different and no one heals in exactly the same way from trauma.  Each practitioner will develop an eclectic approach, so it is important that they be able to cull through the field of trauma research and practice to decide what works for them as helping professionals and what will work for their clients. If they understand the core problem, and understand that recovery is an integrative process, choosing effective treatment protocols will become increasingly evident as they gain experience. Different stages of recovery may require broad knowledge of diverse methodologies.

I wanted to give clinical students a boost to generate interest in trauma since so many clients who come for help have that history. Money broadens opportunity, and even makes learning more fun. I wanted the students to meet experts and interact with them; meet mature survivors and hear their stories.  I wanted them to hear that trauma work can be rewarding. And ultimately, I wanted to put more trauma-informed practitioners and researchers in the field.

Finally, I wanted students to appreciate that a traumatized mind is like a body that has been burned.  The burn victim needs to be treated with tender, tender care and heal slowly, slowly. slowly.  Someone who is wounded in relationship needs to heal in relationship.  I wanted the students to know that when they are at a loss for what to do, their dedication to their work and their love for their clients will help them think of a way out.

leslie2Leslie Matlen, a trauma-informed psychologist on trauma work:

Healing trauma is all about connection, attachment and safety. I think of it as soul work. Mental health professionals are helping to heal the world. The word psychology has its root in the word “psyche”, meaning breath or spirit. Clinical students will learn to bring compassion, breath and spirit to this work as they become trauma-informed. It is my belief that good therapy involves, among other things, an “unselfish, loyal and benevolent concern for another,” which is actually one of the dictionary’s definition of love.

The work helping professionals do with traumatized clients can be difficult and challenging. The therapeutic relationship is a container where survivors must experience safe boundaries and respect. It is a sacred trust. Individuals who have experienced trauma are often stigmatized and disbelieved, leaving them feeling damaged and ashamed. Shame is a spiritual rupture that affects our sense of self-worth and belonging in the world. Many victims live lives of pain and often don’t share their suffering, even with those closest to them.

Doing this work is not for the faint of heart. It takes knowledge, strength, compassion and the courage to confront one’s own issues of pain and hurt. Therapists are called on to be partners, mentors, healers, guides, supporters, listeners, teachers, fellow travelers and advocates for our clients.

Christine and I share a passionate commitment, along with Marianne and the Department of Psychology, to be a force for good. Christine has shared the personal events which led to her interest in supporting trauma education and research. I became interested in troubled children as a young elementary school teacher. I wanted to learn to help. Years later, as a graduate student in Clinical Psychology, I went on an internship to Brown University to work in two psychiatric hospitals, one with children and one with adults. Fortunately, I had many wonderful psychology professors at UConn: George Allen, Jules Rotter and my mentor, Amerigo Farina, who  specialized in the field of stigmatization of groups and individuals because I was about to learn a hard lesson.

It was during my internship that I was encouraged by my supervisor, Marianne Barton, to attend a training program on sexual abuse. That experience changed my life. There was little awareness that patients were exhibiting behaviors that resulted from the impact of multiple forms of abuse. When I started to look into this, and share my concerns, I began to feel I was experiencing vicarious stigmatization because my observations and beliefs were not taken seriously. These dismissals motivated me to learn more.

We have come a long way since then. Christine and I are very proud that the Clinical Psychology Program at UConn is invested in educating and training trauma-informed clinicians, and that we are able to invite other students from relevant campus organizations, and some local clinicians, to our conferences in order to bring trauma and its treatment out of the darkness and into the light. And I am gratified, after years of sitting with trauma survivors, to have been a part of their journey, to have learned that the human spirit can be triumphant against incredible odds, and to know that I can make a contribution out of my experience to the next generation of helping professionals through the crucial work of this fund.

Photo by Kirsty Coulter.

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