Oklahoma therapist on mission to help children, families beat the trauma cycle
Jeremy Elledge knows that a future where families don't pass down baggage and where schools understand how to care for hurting students is possible
The Norman Transcript
By Emma Keith
NORMAN, Okla. — Jeremy Elledge thinks he can change Oklahoma.
From where he sits, that's a tall order.
Elledge works in mental health services in a state that's top in the nation for childhood trauma. Oklahoma leads in female incarceration and heart disease mortality, and has high rates of child abuse and divorce, lending to the cycles of trauma that impact the state's youngest residents, the Tulsa World reports.
But Elledge wants to stop that cycle. For the last two years, he's been traveling the state training Oklahomans to understand, unpack and more ethically treat childhood trauma."
From 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at Cameron University in Lawton, Elledge and other New View employees will educate Oklahomans on trauma and all its implications. Subsequent spring trainings will be in Ada, Durant and Norman.
Elledge, a Norman-based senior therapist and supervisor with Central Oklahoma Community Mental Health Center's Children & Family Services, has more than 15 years of experience in mental health and trauma treatment experience. Two years ago, he started New View, an organization that provides trauma-informed therapy services and mental health professional licensing guidance.
The organization also allows Elledge to take his trauma knowledge across the state. In the last two years, he's traveled to nearly two dozen cities to train Oklahomans — whether medical personnel, educators or parents — about trauma. Elledge and New View partner with other organizations, including the Evolution Foundation and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, to offer the educational sessions.
"We just want to get the word out there about what trauma is and its implications for children," said Robert Lee, a former supervisor of Elledge's who now works with New View and the Evolution Foundation.
"Those of us who are not in school now really don't understand the stress that children are under in schools. Chronic stress and trauma kind of track each other in terms of the response in our developing brains."
Trauma can be complex and personal, a sometimes-invisible force to those outside a child's mind. But it's a pervasive force in Oklahoma, the No. 1 state in the nation for children experiencing two or more adverse childhood experiences.
Adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, are traumatic events that happen to someone before the age of 17, or any factors in their life that might undermine their development, stability and safety [like growing up around substance abuse or having an incarcerated parent]."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that experiencing ACEs can increase one's risk of developing chronic disease, mental illness and substance abuse, and can cause toxic stress that impacts mental and physical development. Women and people of color are at higher risk for experiencing multiple ACEs, according to the CDC.
But it's not always obvious when children have been hurt by trauma, Elledge said. While adults are likely to compassionately respond to a child's visible, physical injury, Elledge said they can't always see or understand the deep physiological impacts that trauma can leave behind, and can respond negatively to trauma's effects.
Elledge said he hopes to help more adults — particularly educators, mental health clinicians and hospital staff — to understand the symptoms of trauma, which can sometimes manifest as difficult behavioral issues in kids. He wants to create a more ethical, trauma-informed and effective system of treatment in Oklahoma, he said.
"So many people that get into [mental health care] have the idea, the intention, the heart -- they want to help," Elledge said. "Well, a kid pisses them off or a troubled kid triggers some emotion. Hurt kids are good at hurting people.... it's not ethical, it's not humane, it's not appropriate for us to not truly be trauma informed in our services. And I see a lot of trauma training that's lacking."
Having a Vision
New View's trainings work toward a variety of goals. Elledge, joined by various other presenters, walks attendees through some of the basics of childhood trauma, defining the issue and talking through its basic impacts.
But he also educates audiences on generational and family trauma, on communicating and interacting with traumatized children, on working with marginalized populations, on healthy coping mechanisms and self care, and more. He's focused on creating a more equitable system that addresses the needs of all Oklahomans, he said.
Elledge said he also hopes to help attendees practice the concept of emotional intelligence, of communicating with sensitivity about emotions and needs.
He's seen the cost of adults responding in anger when traumatized children lash out, he said, and wants to create a state where patient, calculated responses to behavioral issues are the norm."
While Elledge does hope to impact the medical and education fields with his presentations, New View trainings are open to anyone, and free to attendees who aren't seeking continuing education credits (for those seeking credit, there's a small cost).
The trainings are useful for anyone interested in attending no matter their background, said Bobbie Simmons, a former supervisor of Elledge's and frequent attendee of his trainings. Simmons was in mental health care in Oklahoma for decades, but said she always finds something new and refreshing in Elledge's presentations.
"I've been to lots and lots of trainings, and at some point, as a professional, you reach a point that you kind of feel like you know it all," Simmons said. "But Jeremy has new stuff. Jeremy has new insights, things such as generational trauma that I hadn't considered or thought of in my career."
New View's trainings aren't dry, clinical affairs, said New View trauma specialist and coordinator Catherine Filippo -- they're interactive, allowing attendees to get real answers for real situations.
"The real thing I think that sets New View apart is just how authentic the conversations have been in the classroom, in the educational spot," Filippo said. "...I think Jeremy is a force of nature. He has an incredible way of connecting with people...he has this vision that Oklahoma needs to be a trauma-informed state, and just by having that huge of a goal, he's going to do whatever he can to reach it, and he's not afraid to talk about reaching it."
New View's work also reaches a critical population in Oklahoma: rural communities. A 2019 report from a state task force found that Oklahoma's rural areas — and most parts of the state outside of Cleveland, Oklahoma and Tulsa counties — are underserved by trauma-informed resources. Residents can't get to the resources they need because of transportation issues or distance.
But Elledge's trainings reach some of those communities. He's traveled as far west as Woodward — where he was met with an audience of just four people — to deliver his presentations, and makes frequent stops well outside of the state's larger metro areas.
The premise is that everyone in Oklahoma, regardless of where they live, deserves this kind of knowledge," Lee said.
Elledge believes in his mission deeply, but he wants others to believe too. He knows a better state, a less traumatized Oklahoma, a future where families don't pass down baggage and where schools understand how to care for hurting students, is possible.
He knows because he was a traumatized child, a kid who did time in juvenile detention and who slowly lost his eyesight over the years. Elledge is vision impaired now, so getting across the state for trainings and traveling to rural communities isn't always easy for him. But he's made trauma-informed care his mission and calling, forging a brighter future for himself and his state.
"It takes a smudge of courage to go out there in front of these audiences and even plan one of these events," Elledge said. "...But we've got a team of people that is growing, and I believe if people will get on board, we have measurable ways that we can show that we're helping change Oklahoma."
(c)2020 The Norman Transcript (Norman, Okla.)