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Healing the wounds of trauma at Divine Mercy University

First slide

A week after Hurricane Sandy, a 78-year-old resident of a coastal New Jersey town cleaned up what was left after a wall of water crashed through her home. The woman began to cry as she explained how scared she had been as the water rose and how devastated she was to lose her possessions, especially the old photos of her late husband. Benjamin Keyes, a trained trauma therapist, listened patiently.

From across the destroyed home, the woman’s son called to her, urging her to stop crying now that the immediate danger was over. Keyes turned to the woman and told her to cry as much as she needed. She grabbed Keyes’ wrist, saying, “I can’t believe someone understands what I'm going through.”

Keyes, an associate professor at Divine Mercy University in Arlington, has traveled around the nation and to 28 countries in the past 10 years to counsel those in need during times of crisis. He’s become an expert in trauma, which he defines as a catastrophic event that causes significant emotional and even physical damage. The trauma can be manmade, such as terrorism or human trafficking, or natural, such as hurricanes, tornados or earthquakes.

His interest in trauma began in the mid-1980s, when a client exhibited symptoms he couldn’t understand. He referred her to a colleague, who realized that the patient was suffering from dissociative identity disorder after experiencing early childhood sexual trauma. Keyes decided that to best serve his clients, he needed to study more about some of the most difficult experiences imaginable.

“All these years later, it pushes me to learn more because it’s constantly changing,” he said. “To keep up with the new techniques, you have to be pretty active.”

Keyes later joined the Green Cross Academy of Traumatology, an organization that deploys trained volunteers to help victims and first responders cope after a disaster. The Green Cross, where he now serves as director, has more than 400 members. Organizations as large as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and as small as a fire department have requested Green Cross’ services, and members have been present at most of the major disasters in the recent past, he said,  including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti.

The Green Cross also offers four certification classes: Compassion Fatigue Educator, Compassion Fatigue Therapist, Field Traumatologist and Certified (Clinical) Traumatologist. Through Keyes, they now are offered online and on the Divine Mercy campus, as well as at other schools and private practices across the country.

Using the trainings as a key component, Keyes began the Center for Trauma and Resiliency Studies at Divine Mercy after piloting a similar program at Regent University in Virginia Beach. “I really like the education model, because it exposes students to the area of trauma and gives them the ability to have certifications even before they’re in offices working as licensed professionals,” he said.

In addition to offering the courses through Green Cross, Keyes is building more training on trauma into Divine Mercy’s clinical psychology curriculum. The center also is conducting research on trauma, including a “five-year longitudinal study with survivors of human trafficking utilizing a Christian treatment model for intervention and healing,” according to the website. He hopes to form a trauma response team of students, alumni and community members, possibly to work with the Roma or gypsy populations in Romania next year and at other sites in the future.  

Chris Johns, Keyes’ graduate assistant, believes that all mental illness stems from some type of trauma. Keyes has helped him learn more about the field, and why it should matter to Christians. “Personally, I think without an understanding of the cross and of redemptive suffering, (trauma) can look horrific,” he said. “It’s been really informative for me to see how it can be treated effectively.”

In March, Keyes will travel to Lebanon to meet with priests and social workers based in refugee camps in Aleppo, Syria.

“I really see trauma work as mission work. (St.) Paul says we’re to be all things to all people. This is one of those instances where we actually do that,” he said. “(But) we don’t do that without the spirit of God going with us.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017