Language is powerful. What we say and how we say it can have a big impact on the people we are speaking to – often much more than we realise. This can be particularly true for people who have gone through trauma at some point in their lives. person comforting another personTrauma sensitive language is part of trauma-informed care, which is an important part of the way many health (particularly mental health), family and community services now work with clients and patients.

Some of our projects require a keen understanding and application of trauma sensitive language. We believe information regarding this type of language is important for people to learn about and share.

What is trauma?

Trauma results from an event, or series of events or circumstances, that a person finds overwhelming or life-changing. The event can affect their psychological development or wellbeing. Individual trauma includes things like abuse, domestic violence, experiences of war and other types of violence.

Trauma can also be intergenerational or historical and collective: “Cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences.” (Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, 2003). Examples of intergenerational or historical trauma include colonisation and the Stolen Generations.

What is trauma-informed care?

Trauma-informed care or practice is a framework for how services are delivered. It’s based on knowledge and understanding of how trauma can affect people’s lives. Trauma-informed care means that services are aware and sensitive to a person’s history of trauma and how this might affect their behaviour and the services they need. Without this understanding, services can unintentionally re-traumatise their clients.

Trauma-informed care should involve all staff in an organisation. All staff members are important to a client’s recovery process and need to have skills and sensitivity. Using trauma sensitive language is an important part of trauma-informed care.

Trauma sensitive language

Language matters and words have power. When speaking to someone who has been through trauma, particularly about that trauma, you need to think carefully before you speak and speak with intention. We need to be aware of the words we choose, the tone we use and how we phrase our questions.

When people with post-traumatic stress disorder are faced with trauma-related words, they often have slower response times, showing that these words have more emotional content and that they are delaying the information being processed.

Things to consider when aiming for trauma sensitive language:

  • no labels
  • no judgement
  • no jargon.

Which words to use and avoid will depend on the individual and their situation. A person’s preferred words can also change. You need to speak to individuals and ask what their preference is.

As an example, the word ‘survivor’ is generally preferred to ‘victim’, but in some instances ‘victim’ can be the preferred term. This choice can depend on where, or at what stage, a person is in regard to their trauma.

We all need to be more aware of how other people’s history and situations might affect them and think about how what we say impacts others.