The Ethics of Not Treating Trauma

We are entering a new era of trauma awareness.  We are just starting to be able to make visible the central role that trauma plays in human development, physical health, and in relationships of all types.  We are recognizing that trauma is about us too (#MeToo).  Once we find firm footing in this new paradigm, we will look back with a different lens than we looked forward.  We will not look favorably on the systems that promoted invisibility.  Once you come to see trauma, it’s difficult not to see it.  We will judge harshly the systems who were responsible for treating or mitigating it, yet purposefully looked the other way.  We are just now beginning to see trauma for what it is–the longest, most expensive, and most devastating public health crisis in the history of the Western world.  Once clients understand trauma and can see clearly the bodily burden they now have from carrying untreated trauma, they are likely to ask a very sensible and poignant question.  They are going to ask it first to you.  Then they will ask a lawyer: “I have been a client at this mental health agency for many years… why has no one treated my trauma?”

I only saw Betty once.  She came to my agency because the new prescriber at her agency refused to continue the astronomically high doses of Valium that she had been taking for decades.  She was hoping our doctor would.  Her trauma history was staggering and she clearly met criteria for PTSD.  She was hypervigilant and scanned the room throughout the assessment.  She slept only a few hours a night since middle childhood and reported severe and persistent trauma-related dreams.  She was having flashbacks during our assessment.  She did not want to see me for counseling because she had been seeing the same therapist for her “anxiety” for over 30 years.  She and her therapist were “best friends… we have gone through everything together and I will never leave her.”  She was certain that her therapist had never diagnosed her with PTSD.  Her therapist never attempted to help her develop coping skills to better manage the fires that consumed nearly every waking and sleeping moment.  One of the things she and her therapist went through “together” were all the client’s trauma-related autoimmune disease diagnoses that might have been prevented entirely had the client’s trauma been made visible and treated decades ago.

Trauma is ubiquitous in mental health clinics.  Therapists are already trauma therapists in the same way that ER physicians are by default doctors of accidents and infections.  Trauma work is essential to the work that we do as professionals and it’s is no one else’s job to see it, normalize it, and effectively treat it.  Betty’s therapist didn’t treat her trauma because she probably doesn’t know how.  Based on what Betty told me, her therapist probably had her own personal trauma-related reasons for not being able to visualize and treat Betty’s trauma effectively.  Betty did not have a therapist.  She had a friend and a warm witness to her ever-growing suffering.  There is a difference.

After broader culture becomes more trauma aware, Betty’s therapist may be at serious risk for malpractice for not attempting to treat a clearly identifiable and debilitating disorder (if she wasn’t already at risk for keeping a severely unwell and unimproving client on her caseload since the 1980s).  The fact that you don’t see trauma isn’t a defense.  In fact, failing to treat something that is right in front of you is one of the surest cases of malpractice.  Lawyers will use your own intake assessment against you.  The fact that you didn’t know how to treat one of the most common and debilitating mental health conditions isn’t an effective defense against arguments of incompetence.

Cultures are talented at vanishing trauma.  The mental health profession has been more than a little dissociative in its relationship with trauma.  When broader culture becomes more fully trauma informed, broader culture will demand that heads roll.  They will want to know who knew—or should have known—and did nothing.  From one therapist to another: please learn to see and treat trauma.  Trauma is treatable.  Even severe trauma is treatable.  You can help people rescue the self from the past.  You can help people avoid the irreversible pain of stress-related autoimmune disorders.  You can do your job.  No other profession is responsible for this.  There is no medication for this.  This is what we do.  I will do my part to help you.

8 thoughts on “The Ethics of Not Treating Trauma

  1. Reading this after a solid 12 hour day of seeing clients with C PTSD. So right on. The change in an individual’s expression when you explain Complex Trauma and tell them that they are not crazy – is worth a lifetime of everything. I am grateful and so honored to be a Complex Trauma Professional and witness to such incredible pain and indelible fight in each individual that sits with me. Thank you for this post.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I started going to therapy in 1983; when I left my abusive home, and headed to college. I had debilitating anxiety, but only received the diagnosis of dysthymia (and one said I was borderline). It wasn’t until the early 90’s, where I was diagnosed with PTSD…but, then, it wasn’t really treated for more years, until another therapist and I discovered that I really had DDNOS. Now, the work began, but, because of a series of job changes and moves, that I was forced to do, I, again, saw therapists who didn’t treat the trauma…one even said I didn’t have PTSD, after administering the Millon (sp) to me. She told me there was NOTHING wrong with me, at all! And, she was a, supposed, “trauma therapist”! I wasted more time and more money, until I finally found a therapist who is addressing the trauma, but I know it will take more time.
    Meanwhile, I received my counseling training, also, in the early 90’s. There was great pressure to NOT ask about trauma, due to that “false memory syndrome” crap. I asked, anyway. I keep asking. I refer people to therapists who can help them, if I am unable to. Currently, I am in a job where I can only do crisis counseling and brief assessments (in a jail). I try to educate the clients on trauma, and strongly encourage them to seek counseling, when they get out. Sadly, the local mental health center is less than stellar at collaborating with us, and they have long wait-lists, and frequently changing staff. I encourage the clients to keep trying…just like I did. Life will be better, on the other side. I know it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Here in the UK there is a huge and growing disconnect between primary care GP’s in the NHS, statutory ten 1 hour EMDR sessions available through primary care community mental health teams and systemic failings in referring obvious C-PTSD clients onto secondary care (ie longer term) herapy pathways. So even if you get the appropriate diagnosis, that’s no guarantee of receiving EMDR therapy.

    Many patients face being dismissed or deferred away from therapy altogether, with benzodiazepines being thrown at patients on already lengthy waiting lists & weekly “chats” with a community psychiatric nurse. Scandalous.

    Advocacy groups and hospital admissions from mismanaged care-plans are all too frequently the deciding factors in clients being offered appropriate therapy and EMDR even after extensive life-mapping has been established in preambles that subsequently lead nowhere.

    The NHS is an incredible system, but for trauma many health boards are structurally incapable of delivering positive outcomes for those people most in need. If this was cancer care, it would already have been hauled over the coals as a national scandal. is currently training EMDR therapists in the Middle-East and Kosovo.


  4. Well said, Tom. I have been doing EMDR with clients for about 6 months now. It has entirely changed how I do trauma-informed treatment. I stumbled across your blog seeking resources on helping low-functioning clients heal from their trauma.


  5. In my practice it’s one of the things I teach my Clinicians is to recognize what’s underneath the presenting which is trauma. I teach my supervisees what’s underneath is the trauma! I see one client who was referred from another clinician specifically for the Trauma. It has taken decades for trauma be on the radar and identified as the underlying issue.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s