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May was Mental Health Awareness Month, which Prince William County officials recognized by proclaiming May 9 “Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day.” But maintaining good mental health should be part of our lives and our children’s lives all year long.

What does it mean to maintain mental health? It means understanding what makes us happy and making a conscious effort to take care of ourselves not only physically but emotionally as well.

Having healthy coping skills when life throws its punches can help us get through the hardest times. Most of us learn these skills during childhood, but it’s never too late to find coping skills that work for you. We are all going to experience obstacles and trauma in our lifetimes. It’s how we find the help we need to get through those times and maintain our mental health that are important.

“Trauma-informed care” is something you should start hearing more about not only in Prince William County but statewide. Professionals who work with youth, such as teachers and school resource officers as well as community leaders, will be participating in trauma-focused training to equip them with skills and resources to help or friends, families and community members.

Conversations that started with, “What is wrong with you?” are changing to “What has happened to you?” giving us all the opportunity to talk about mental health and unique experiences that may be barriers to healthy living.

So, what is trauma and why should we know about it? Trauma is defined as an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that have had lasting adverse effects on functioning as well as mental, physical, social, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Trauma experiences and reactions are unique to each individual. Two people can experience the same event but perceive and react to it in entirely different ways. Some of these traumatic experiences can include, but are not limited to, “adverse childhood experiences,” also known as “ACEs.”

In the study of ACEs, there are 10 types of childhood traumas. Five are personal: physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect and emotional neglect. Five relate to household circumstances: a caregiver who’s an alcoholic; a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence; a caregiver in jail; a caregiver diagnosed with a mental illness; and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment.

One group strategizing to address ACEs and trauma in our community to promote good mental health is the Greater Prince William Trauma-Informed Community Network. The network sprouted from the Prevention Alliance of Greater Prince William in the spring of 2017 when members realized that trauma and ACE accumulation were root cause underlying risk factors for substance use and mental health issues.

The network is co-facilitated by Prince William County Community Services staff and SCAN of Northern Virginia with dedicated funding from the Potomac Health Foundation.

Membership has grown to include local school divisions; the Prince William County Department of Social Services; George Mason University; Why, Inc.; Formed Families Forward; Catholic Charities; ACTS; the county health department; Voices for Virginia’s Children; and interested community members.

The network meets the second Friday of every month at 9:30 a.m. at the James J. McCoart Administration Building, 1 County Complex, Woodbridge. For more information on how to join, contact Heather Martinsen at 703-792-7739 or Allyson Halverson at 703-820-9001.

How can we promote good mental health in our community?

  • Talk about it: If a co-worker tells you they have been sick with a cold, your first instinct might be to protect yourself by stepping back to reduce your exposure, washing your hands more and maybe take some extra vitamin C. But none of those preventative measures would have happened if your co-worker had not told you they were sick in the first place. When people start talking about mental health openly and regularly, as they do physical health, they create opportunities for others to reflect on their own mental health and take preventative practices. How do we maintain our mental health? That part is much easier said than done, but it starts in childhood.
  • Teach children resiliency skills:  Protective factors are helpful to buffer life’s stressful and traumatic experiences to maintain good mental health. They include feeling supported and empowered; using time constructively; and a commitment to learning, positive values and identity and social competency. All are needed to build resiliency in a young person’s life. More information about the “40 developmental assets” can be found at https://www.search-institute.org
  • Know your resources: There are some great local resources that can help with questions or concerns about mental health. Prince William County Community Services is a great resource if you or someone you know wants to help with mental health issues. Visit http://www.pwcgov.org/government/dept/cs to learn more about treatment options and mental health promotion activities in the community.
  • Treat others (and yourself)  with empathy: Start with the magic question -- ”What happened?” instead of, “What’s wrong?” It changes your perspective and gives a person or a child permission to explain a situation and its impact on their mental health instead of taking the blame for their emotions.
  • Simply, be kind: We all have our unique experiences. Even if someone is smiling, they may be struggling.

This article was written by members of the Greater Prince William Trauma-Informed Community Network, a coalition of county officials and nonprofits working to educate the community about the impacts of childhood trauma and ways to prevent and overcome it.

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