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Trauma can change brain chemistry, expert says

Trauma-informed justice workshop in Yellowknife exposes justice workers to latest brain chemistry science.

Experts, justice officials on the science of trauma and its effects at Yellowknife conference

Prosecutors, defence attorneys, corrections officials, police officers and others in the justice system gathered in Yellowknife on Sept. 10 to get a better understanding of the long-term effects of trauma.

Kim Barthel recalled the first time she met Theo Fleury, the former NHL hockey player who revealed he had been sexually abused by his junior hockey coach.

The meeting happened after a presentation she gave on trauma and how traumatic events change people's brain chemistry to put them in a permanent state of fight or flight, also known as hyper-vigilance.

Barthel didn't know the short but stocky Fleury as he approached her at the front of the room, but he told her she had helped him understand what had driven him to alcoholism and undermined his relationships. It started not with the sexual abuse, but with the neglect he suffered as a child of an alcoholic father and a mother who suffered from severe depression.

Theo Fleury and Kim Barthel on a visit Her Majesty's Penitentiary. Barthel described her meeting with Fleury to participants in a Yellowknife workshop on trauma-informed justice. (Twitter: @theofleury14)

"That moment was the beginning of many, many significant changes," said Barthel, who went on to co-write a book with Fleury. Conversations with a Rattlesnake is a recounting of Fleury's attempt to understand and manage the forces that had made chaos such a constant in his life.

Barthel told this story during a presentation Monday to Yellowknife justice officials, including police, prosecutors, defence attorneys and corrections workers. They had gathered to deepen their understanding of trauma-informed justice, or of how trauma has impacted the lives of many caught up in the criminal justice system.

Fight or flight

Barthel, an occupational therapist, and co-presenter Dr. Lori Haskell, a clinical psychologist, told the group that early childhood trauma for neglect or abuse, sets up people to be dominated by the instinctive, unthinking survival responses humans have evolved over hundreds of millions of years.

Quoting renowned trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Haskell said, "The imprint of trauma is in our limbic system and the brain stem, our reptilian brain." Haskell said early childhood neglect or abuse conditions children's brains to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight, or hyper-vigilance.

The high-stress state is tied into subconscious survival instincts humans have developed over millions of years. Barthel said the effects of trauma are "remembered but not recalled."

"We reference each other in an eighth of a millisecond to learn what is safe and what is dangerous," explained Barthel. "When you're referencing it all the time, it becomes more vigilant and starts to see threat where threat isn't happening."

Left untreated, victims of trauma remain in that state throughout their lives. Though they are unaware of the subconscious effect, trauma interferes with their ability to form positive relationships and focus on tasks. It often leads to addiction.

One of the most effective ways of relieving the stress of permanently looking out for danger is consuming alcohol, which is associated with most of the crime that people are serving time for in jails in the north and across the country.

Protecting the public

The presentation on the neurochemistry of trauma was organized by the N.W.T. chapter of the Canadian Bar Association and spearheaded by defence lawyer Peter Harte.

Harte agreed that the justice system has a responsibility to protect the public, regardless of the causes or effects of any trauma an offender may have suffered. But he says there are limits to that protection.

'Unless you deal with trauma, that addiction is still going to be there, and the things that go along with it are going to be there as well,' says Peter Harte. (Emily Blake/CBC)

"You are only allowed protection from the accused to the extent that the accused is morally deserving of punishment," said Harte. "So in terms of sentencing they're going to be sentenced in a way which reflects, at least to some extent, their moral guilt." He said offenders who are victims of trauma are less blameworthy for their crimes.

Harte says the best way to improve public safety is to help people address their trauma and the addiction that often results when people turned to alcohol for relief from the stress.

"Unless you deal with the trauma, that addiction is still going to be there, and the things that go along with it are going to be there as well — anger, rage, feelings of inadequacy."

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