Why we need both God and medicine to overcome trauma
As part of the Ignatian Colleagues Program, a leadership opportunity for lay administrators and faculty at Jesuit institutions, I read the Rev. Bryan Massingale’s Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. Father Massingale writes that if Catholics see systems or processes that are unfair to certain populations, God calls us to change them to be more equitable. To do anything less is a sin.
After reading it, I felt God calling me to use my position as the president of Marquette University to make a difference in Milwaukee. However, the problems facing our inner city around issues seemed too big and overwhelming. I did not know where to start.
This all changed in November 2017, when I attended a campus event on the epidemic of trauma. A panel of experts spoke about how our most pressing societal challenges, including health disparities, segregation, violence and crime, were rooted in generational trauma. Research has shown that when children experience abuse and neglect, it changes the development of their brains and their reactions to different situations. As an engineer, I was amazed by the science behind this.
Research has shown that when children experience abuse and neglect, it changes the development of their brains and their reactions to different situations.
A groundbreaking study done 30 years ago measured 10 types of adverse childhood experiences (A.C.E.s), including abuse, neglect, violence, mental illness, incarceration of a family member and substance abuse. An A.C.E. score of four or higher was found to greatly increase an individual’s chances of experiencing depression, incarceration, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
This hit home for me because my wife and I both experienced significant trauma as children. In my family, there was mental illness, violence and alcohol abuse. When I was growing up, my grandfather died by suicide and my mother had multiple suicide attempts. All of these factors had an impact on my development. I took the A.C.E. test and learned I have a score of five. Since then, I have been working to build my resiliency through prayer and self-reflection.
No matter where I am or what I have on my plate, I take at least 15 minutes a day to pray, reflect and have quiet time. I have found that praying 15 minutes every day is an important form of self-care.
Without taking time to be quiet and reflective in prayer, it can be easy to miss the signs and calls from God. For Amy and me, our call to serve was that trauma panel in late 2017. Shortly after attending this panel, we pulled together a group of 30 people to discuss the topic of trauma. We called our group Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee (SWIM) and started meeting every six weeks.
I have been working to build my resiliency through prayer and self-reflection.
Today, we usually have about 150 people at these open meetings—everyone from health care practitioners and social workers to government officials, pastors and community organizers.
The mission of Swim is to inspire dynamic collaboration among participants that heals trauma and creates a resilient community. Working together, we hope to make Milwaukee the most trauma-informed city in the country. In the fall of 2018, we held a trauma conference to bring together the top researchers and experts in the field, and we had an overwhelming response: More than 1,200 people attended from 14 states. Our next project is the development of a mobile clinic to provide primary and mental health care in areas of Milwaukee that do not have adequate services.
None of this would have been possible if we were not taking time to reflect and listen to God’s call. In the First Letter of Peter, the writer says, “Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins.” At the same time, neurological research has shown that the best way to limit the catastrophic effects of childhood trauma and to stop its intergenerational spread is through close, loving relationships. The science supports the faith on this one.