College of

Reinforcing a culture of caring and wellness

September 30, 2019

The College of Human Medicine was founded as an institution dedicated to caring and wellness.

Efforts are underway to reemphasize that culture and ensure that the college fully acknowledges and respects the physical and emotional wellbeing of its faculty, staff, students and patients.

“It’s about making the system caring, safe and responsive,” said Jennifer Johnson, PhD, a psychologist and C.S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health. Dean Norman Beauchamp Jr. asked Johnson and Claudia Finkelstein, MD, the college’s director of Wellness, Resiliency and Support for the Vulnerable, to lead a workgroup, which founded and developed the program.

They call it “Creating a Culture of Caring Using Trauma-Informed Principles.” Overall, the program uses a trauma-informed approach, which is an evidence-based model for organizational change. It emphasizes the physical, psychological and emotional safety of those within the college, as well as for those it serves. Johnson emphasized that although the model includes the word “trauma,” it applies to more than the most serious cases, such as a physical assault. It’s equally aimed at dealing with smaller issues by creating a sense of safety, transparency and peer support.

“If the system can deal with those sorts of things, it can deal with the big things,” Johnson said. “We’re really trying to communicate that it’s about the everyday things.”

The program was started partly in response to the scandal that erupted around Larry Nassar, a former MSU osteopathic physician convicted on several counts of criminal sexual conduct. While the many female athletes he assaulted under the guise of medical treatment were the most severely traumatized, the damage he caused spread throughout the university and beyond.

“Everyone who’s part of the MSU family suffered to an extent,” Finkelstein said. “It has resulted in an institution-wide sense of shame and guilt.”

She emphasized that “we don’t want to make people think the culture here was awful. We are merely acknowledging that when people are afraid to speak up, or do not believe that they will be heard, is when things can go on for 20 years without anybody knowing about or acting to stop them.”

The goal, she said, is to reestablish the college’s commitment to caring and wellness by overtly examining it.

“There’s no life that hasn’t had some element of trauma, which is a big word, but we’ve all had our cumulative small traumas, which can impact our lives at work and school,” Finkelstein said. “For example if, you didn’t feel respected in your family and you feel that your supervisor doesn’t give you a lot of respect, it can be re-traumatizing. The supervisor may not understand why it’s a big deal and further minimize your experience. It’s about cultivating a sensitivity and an awareness of treating each other with respect.”

The program includes a “Culture of Caring” speaker series and small group discussions.

After the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Johnson and Finkelstein organized small group discussions in East Lansing, Flint and Grand Rapids, as suggested by Beauchamp, who also serves as MSU’s Associate Provost and Assistant Vice President for Health Affairs.

The program also includes suggestion boxes – physical and virtual – and is seeking “champions” – faculty and staff interested in learning more about the trauma-informed principles and putting them into practice.

“There’s no suggestion too big or too small,” Finkelstein said. “There’s no trauma too big or too small.

“If you see something, say something, and we can make this a better place.”

More information about Building a Trauma-Informed Community can be found here.