Trauma and Supporting People Experiencing Disability During COVID and Beyond

by Lori Morphy, SARC Trainer/Resource Developer – Service Delivery

SARC recently hosted a virtual webinar for SARC Members with Dr. Margaret Newbury Jones from Shade Consulting titled “COVID-19, Trauma, and People Experiencing Disability”.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), “Trauma is a term used to describe the challenging emotional consequences that living through a distressing event can have for an individual. Traumatic events can be difficult to define because the same event may be more traumatic for some people than for others.”

Dr. Newbury Jones explained that for many, COVID-19 has been a stressful and traumatic experience. She also noted that we need to be aware that some people have already experienced trauma in their lives before the pandemic. As a result of having these traumatic experiences, we may see a wide variety of responses when supporting people experiencing disability, including aggression, agitation, inability to control emotions, sleep issues, worry, decline in usual skills, challenging behaviour, and withdrawal. Many of us are familiar with the term “behaviour is communication”, and seeing these responses in the people we support, and our co-workers, may tell us that they are experiencing stress or trauma.

Participants in the webinar reported dealing with numerous stressors and challenges specific to COVID-19, including frustration and anxiety, new and sudden changes to routines, confusing PPE, rapidly changing rules to learn and follow, missing family, friends, and activities, limited access to medical or other supports, and fear of illness, to name a few. It’s not surprising that people are experiencing stress responses! However, staff continue to work hard to support others and take care of themselves as they adjust to the ever changing world with COVID-19.

Knowing what the responses to stress look like is essential, but knowing what we can do to help is crucial. It’s important to recognize that most support staff are not trained counselors, so Dr. Newbury Jones had the following suggestions for providing support:

  • Help people to identify the variety of feelings they might be experiencing. She suggests thinking beyond the typical words like mad, sad, and happy. Try searching the internet for feeling pictures or cards that you can look at and discuss together to expand language around feelings. For example, other words might include feeling frustrated, disappointed, safe, worried, calm, tired, or overwhelmed.
  • Explore new grounding or regulating techniques, such as movement or exercise, breathing techniques, music, a cup of tea, or using fidgets or sensory items are just a few ideas to try. Do these together with the people you support, and eventually they may begin to do more of these on their own, whenever they need to self-regulate.
  • Remember that every interaction is an opportunity to build connection and trust. Have patience and take time to listen and acknowledge how people feel.
  • Always seek professional help when needed. You can help advocate for people to access the help they need.

While COVID-19 has presented many challenges, it’s clear that professionals in the Disability Service sector have shown tremendous resilience, hope, and creativity. Participants in the webinar were quick to identify positives that have emerged during these difficult times as well. Here are some of the things they shared:

“COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to connect more deeply, to get to know people really well – their struggles, their personalities, and how they react. It has deepened relationships.”

“We got really creative and had to pivot in how we offered programs and activities. A lot of people have gotten better with technology and using online programs.”

“Resiliency and the stigma of mental health is changing – we are becoming more aware. It is okay to not be okay, and we can talk about it openly.”

“We’ve grown professionally and learned new ways to handle the new way of doing things and working with our teammates. There has been more active communication, especially remotely.”

Staff in the Disability Service sector have played an integral role in supporting people to stay safe and healthy as we navigate our way through the pandemic. If you’re looking for more resources around COVID-19 and trauma informed support, check out these great links:


Please Note: The included information is for reference only, and SARC and its Members, their employers, officers, and Directors assume and accept no liability for any consequences arising from the use, non-use, accuracy, or legal compliance of any of the information, tools, or resources provided.

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