News and Articles

The Pathway to Becoming a Trauma-Informed City

Image for Blog#1
August 25, 2021

Devika Parsaud is a 2021 Social Connectedness Fellow working with the City of Toronto. She graduated from York University’s School of Health Policy and Management with a Masters in Health specializing in Health Policy and Equity, and holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology and Health Studies from the University of Toronto. She grew up in Toronto and is passionate about the social determinants of health and public policy. She has goals of exploring social injustices and being a part of interventions and change for a more equitable healthy society.

It was a warm summer evening in June when bullets flew through a children’s birthday party in Rexdale, Toronto injuring 4 people, including 3 children.

Gun violence in Toronto is once again on the rise with trends in shooting and firearm discharges increasing. Shooting events are defined as any incident in which “a projectile is discharged from a firearm and injures a person, while a firearm discharge refers to any incident where evidence exists that a projective was discharged from a firearm including accidental discharge.” Firearm discharge, even when not resulting in injury or death, can still have a traumatic impact on a community, which is why firearm discharge statistics are often included alongside reports on more obvious firearms-related harms, and factored into broader considerations on gun violence. The last five years have seen a double in the number of incidents of gun violence, with the annual average number of shootings at 436; a big jump from the 2004 to 2015 average of 288. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Toronto saw high numbers of gun violence, with 462 firearm discharges, 178 injuries, and 39 deaths in 2020.

The incidence of gun-related violence is highest among young people, particularly men, and disproportionately affects communities facing socioeconomic disadvantages.  

There are many root causes of gun violence, such as poverty, racism, economic inequity, poor housing, lack of opportunities, and social isolation. One cause that does not receive enough attention is trauma.

Trauma is defined as the “lasting emotional response that results from living through a distressing experience or event.” There have been numerous studies on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which are preventable traumatic events that occur in childhood, such as witnessing violence, bullying, experiencing racism, neglect, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. “The experience of trauma, multi-generational, intergenerational, and early childhood trauma, can cause lifelong harm, poor health outcomes, contribute to health inequities, and can perpetuate violence and exposure to violence.”

Trauma is not just an individual experience; it can apply to groups and communities as well.

Community trauma results from consistent exposure to events that can cause physical, emotional, and psychological harm, and can have a negative impact on community wellbeing, health, and safety. For example, neighbourhoods that experience higher levels of inequities and violence are most at risk of being traumatized. The Wellesley Institute and Thrive Toronto have found that “racialized and equity-seeking groups are at a greater risk of experiencing adverse childhood experiences that result in trauma.” Racialized groups also encounter race-based traumatic stress as a result of racial bias, racism, discrimination, and hate crimes that have detrimental impacts on both individuals and communities. For example, community trauma disrupts social bonding and increases social isolation. The trauma that results from gun violence impacts more than just the victim and perpetrators, but impacts communities and cities. In this sense, trauma is a collective experience.

Trauma is a cycle; often, trauma both leads to and results from violence.  

To combat gun violence, it is important to address trauma. Being a trauma-informed city means taking a holistic approach. It means acknowledging and repairing a system that is inequitable, and that contributes to systemic violence and poverty.

SafeTO – Toronto’s Community & Wellbeing Plan aims to shift the focus on community violence from an emergency response to a culture of prevention, to address prioritized challenges including community trauma, community violence, harm, victimization, and injustice to create a safer Toronto. It focuses on social development and investments into people and communities to improve social benefits and address the root causes of crime and trauma.

A trauma-Informed city model is needed to tackle violence and multidimensional poverty, as well as to foster safe spaces, social development, community wellness, and social connectedness. SafeTO underwent many consultations with community groups and stakeholders to understand what a trauma-informed model for the city of Toronto would look like. To become a trauma-informed city SafeTO discovered there are three aspects that need to be considered; embedding trauma-informed, trauma-responsive, and trauma-specific approaches to understand the impacts of trauma, adversity, and violence on people, families, and neighbourhoods.

·  Trauma-Informed

To be trauma-informed means embedding a trauma lens in policies, programming, services, and training for individuals implementing them. It means understanding the connection between trauma and violence, and the impact it has on people’s lives, wellbeing, and behaviours. Being trauma-informed is also about asking who is not at the table? Where are our blind spots? What are barriers that have made communities vulnerable to trauma and violence? 

·  Trauma-Responsive

To be trauma-responsive means transforming all aspects of the city’s programming, language, and values to ensure that those delivering programs, services, and policies understand how to recognize and respond to those experiencing trauma. A trauma-responsive approach is also providing tools and supports to help heal trauma and to prevent trauma in communities.

·  Trauma- Specific

 A trauma-specific approach directly addresses the impact of trauma on individuals, families, and communities, and to facilitate recovery and resist re-traumatization. Trauma is a result of broader systems. It is necessary to create fundamental and systemic changes that tackle systemic violence such as racism, discrimination, and inter-generational trauma.

Toronto is among a few cities in North America, such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco, that are working to become trauma-informed. Transforming Toronto into a trauma-informed city will help to reduce the long-lasting negative impacts on both individuals and communities. It will provide a method to tackle multidimensional poverty, trauma, violence, social isolation, and improve social development.  As Toronto is looking towards coming out of this pandemic, it is important that we build back stronger, and adopt a trauma-informed lens.