Dr. William Steele is the subject for our June 2015 installment of Meet the Authors.
Dr. William Steele (Bill to all who know him) has been my friend and colleague for 26 years. I first met him when he was a guest speaker in my graduate class focused on grief and loss. I was riveted by his wealth of knowledge related to crisis intervention and suicide.
I was in on the ground floor to see Bill’s dream to create TLC (National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children) become a reality. Since that time Bill has trained thousands of practitioners, including me, in resilience-focused and strength-based trauma-informed interventions. Although there are many different successful approaches that yield a favorable outcome, Bill was instrumental in developing a widely practiced treatment approach named Structured Sensory Interventions for Traumatized Children, Adolescents, Adults and Parents (SITCAP®).
In 2001 I was honored to be invited to contribute to the “I Feel Better” manual (revised last year). It was heartwarming to witness the resiliency of children and adolescents as they moved from traumatized victims to survivors to thrivers. The manuals and tools he created are based on meaningful concepts and empirical studies.
His most recent book, Trauma in Schools and Communities, was released just last month. It is a gem and should be in the hands of any school or agency professional. Common questions related to being prepared for tragedy and dealing with the aftermath are answered in reader-friendly language, as well as answers to questions you’ve never thought to ask.
We feel privileged to have Bill and his wife Joyce in our life.
1.) How did you become interested in working with people in crisis?
One of my first jobs was at a 24-hour crisis walk- in center in a community that had three psychiatric facilities. It was interesting and challenging because we never knew the kind of situation we might face from one day to the next. Safety was always an issue as well as knowing beforehand what our options were for de-escalating and stabilizing those in crisis. I certainly learned the importance of being prepared with structured approaches and how over rated talk is when people are in crisis. Today we would say “regulate first- talk later.” I then moved to develop a 24 hour walk-in crisis program for a Detroit mental health center. What was unique to this program was that we also provided short-term crisis intervention seeing individuals as often as needed up to eight weeks, in order to help them discover ways to cope and realize they had the strengths to face future crises. This is really where I experienced that structured short-term approaches can be very effective and gains long lasting. I’m referring to the evidence-based intervention programs I developed for the National Institute of Trauma and Loss in Children (TLC).
From there I took on the role as clinical director of the suicide prevention center in Detroit. That was around 1982 at a time when suicide among young people was on the increase. Unfortunately, there was very little written about how to help these students or how to deal with the aftermath of suicide and contagion especially in school settings. I wrote a small booklet titled “Preventing Teen Suicide” that basically identified “what to say “and “what to do.” A few weeks after being published I received calls from across the country to talk with parents, students, teachers and administrators. This is where my background in crisis intervention allowed me to help schools develop crisis teams and a variety of strategies and protocols for what became an epidemic. In the late 80s violence became the new epidemic taken the lives of young people and so there was a need to follow-up with these school crisis teams with added strategies related to violence. I had much to offer given experiences with the psychiatric population, my time in Detroit and its issues with violence and working with Survivors of Homicide groups and the Parents of Murdered Children program in Detroit.
2.) What led you to develop the National Institute of Trauma and Loss in Children (TLC)?
Suicide and violence were not the only situations presenting crises for schools. There were the sudden death of students and teachers that were difficult, far too many fatal car crashes of students especially around prom time, social workers frequently asking for help with students in foster care and students having a difficult time with divorce. I came to realize that many of these non-violent, non-abusive situations were being experienced as traumatic by many, yet responded to as grief inducing not trauma inducing. It simply made sense to me that we needed to not make assumptions about what survivors needed based on the incident experienced but on the way they experienced what happened to them. So I developed TLC with the intent of creating intervention strategies that met survivors where they were living- in their subject world. It turns out, given the work of Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine, Pat Ogden and so many others that this is a more trauma-informed approach to determining what will matter most in our efforts to help.
3.) The interventions approach you teach in your trainings fits more with expressive modalities and yet I know you are not formally trained in art or play therapy. How did you arrive at this more expressive approach?
Special moments in my life turned me onto the value of communicating and coping in ways that don’t necessarily rely on verbal communication. Let me give a few examples. My father was a very quiet individual. He worked two jobs most of the time that I knew him. We had a very distant relationship in early years. When I left home and spent a few years in the seminary, he began to write me letters. From the time I open his first letter, I discovered an entirely different person. His letters opened the doors into what his world was like and connected us in ways that talk never would. So I came to realize that it’s far easier for some people to bring us into their world through writing rather than talking.
In going through my own psychotherapy, I had the privilege of spending time with Alexander Lowen, the founder of Bioenergetics. This was in the beginning days of all the focus we now have on using the body as a resource. He spent the day with our group and did an evaluation (a body scan) of each one of us. He indicated what he felt was the source of our issues and then prescribed specific body activities for our treatment. At that point in time I was pretty much talked out and was not making a great deal of progress. With the help of my therapist we started those body activities. It was amazing as I was able to release so much that I could not put in words. From that point on I felt that involving the body in some kind of healing process was critical to recovery and growth. Today regulation (resourcing the body) is viewed to be essential to trauma recovery.
The final experience was as a young teen when I was given a camera. I took hundreds of pictures. When I would sit down to look at these, I was amazed by the elements in those pictures that I didn’t actually see when I was looking through the camera lens. Fixed in time, they gave me time to really explore all the elements of those pictures, to discover details of that moment I was not aware I had captured, to look at that moment differently than when I first experienced it. I think that really drew me into developing my evidence-based drawing process. If people are interested in learning more about it they can read the chapter that that I was privileged to be able to write in the new publication by David Crenshaw and Anne Stewart, “Play Therapy: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice”. Its an excellent resource for all levels of practitioners.
4.) Are there other books that you might recommend?
Anything written by Bessel van der Kolk especially his newest, “The Body Keeps Score”. Babette Rothschild’s two classic books, “The Body Remembers and “The Body Remembers Casebook” are also excellent resources. I certainly like Bruce Perry’s “A Boy Raised as a Dog”. Some of the classics like Lenore Terr’s “Too Scared To Cry” or Judith Herman’s “Trauma Recovery” ought to be required reading for anyone working with traumatized individuals as should Eliana Gil’s work. Frankly, I would recommend people to look at your list of publications under trauma and read every one of them because they’re so much rich information that each author has to give. This really helps us develop a multi-layered approach to helping traumatized individuals. I’ve said for the last 20 years there is no one intervention that fits every situation. There is no one book either that best prepares us so read as many as you can.
5.) What motivated you to write your latest book Trauma in Schools and Communities?
It’s easy to remember the stories of survivors as well as other responders. Some of these stories and responses to tragic situations are common to the situation and to the survivor experience; others are quite unique. All present very valuable lessons about our immediate and long-term efforts to help. Unfortunately, many of these lessons rarely reach beyond the community in which the tragedy occurred. Hopefully, the first-hand accounts of the survivors and responders I came to know will reach the larger community of very dedicated professionals, who are eager to be as prepared as possible for tragedies that may take place in their schools and communities.
However, although history does repeat itself, we tend to ignore many of the lessons learned from the past. For example, Anthony Salvatori, then Assistant Principal of Sandy Hook Middle School was also the Coordinator of the district’s Safe School Climate program. He was responsible for preparing staff for tragedies including the violent loss of life. Again unfortunately, all too often he heard “Why are you telling us this? This is not going to happen here.” This was just prior to that tragic loss of lives. We tend to ignore the past by refusing to accept our vulnerability. By the way, the first intentional mass killing of young children took place in 1927 at Michigan Bath Consolidated School. The planted bomb killed 38 elementary schools students, six adults and seriously injured another 58 children and staff. Hopefully the stories of survivors in this work will help to discourage the “It won’t happen here” response to those attempting to provide the best preparation possible.
I also wrote this for the courageous professionals who agree to serve on their crisis teams, trauma response or critical response teams. They are all eager to be as prepared as possible, to engage in best practices to help minimize the many challenges of the recovery process. In many ways the book helps responders and teams evaluate just how prepared they are to respond to the many different experiences and reactions of survivors and their communities. The bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma produce one set of lessons, Columbine another, 9/11 still another and years later Sandy Hook Elementary still yet another set of lessons. There really is no reason not to be prepared. The lessons are there for us. No one text can answer every question or concern. However, I’ve been privileged to train and learn from hundreds of teams across the country, which allows me to bring best practices to today’s teams. For this reason I continue to provide training and can be contacted at 810-241-0391 or email@example.com.
6.) I know you’re kind of semi-retired but are you still available for trainings and presentations?
Absolutely. I’m doing a lot of presentations for schools in terms of trauma- informed classroom practices that have demonstrated their ability to improve academics as well as reduce challenging behaviors. And, of course, I continue to train about integrating the subjective experiences of trauma into treatment approaches. I’m also seeing more requests for a newer presentation titled “Stress Regulation Tools for Helpers: Minimizing Compassion Fatigue/Vicarious Trauma/Monday-Friday Stress (©2015)”
Eliana is the first in our Meet the Authors series on our new site.
I met Eliana Gil in the mid-90s at an APSAC conference. She was looking through our selection of books, and asked how I knew so much about the children’s books we were displaying. That conversation led to a friendship that has spanned over three decades.
Throughout our friendship, I have been truly impressed by how grounded she is. Eliana has delivered thousands of presentations, written for numerous publications, and received accolades and awards of every kind. To this day, she remains one of the most humble, compassionate and kind people, I am fortunate to know.
Eliana saddened many of us when she announced she was semi-retired. However, despite her newfound passion for tennis, line-dancing, and the gym, she still remains a partner in a thriving group private practice and also provides trainings through Starbright Training Institute. This in addition to putting on a yearly conference. As a matter of fact, Eliana will be at Gil Institute doing a training and participating in the Annual Conference in Crystal City. So you can still see Eliana (and the rest of the incredible Gil Institute therapists) at the Gil Institute for Trauma Recovery and Education Open House and Training the week of April 5th.
Eliana will be sharing her pearls of wisdom at the Mid-Atlantic Third Annual Play Therapy Training Institute on April 10-12, 2015 along with other well-known play therapy experts who share a passion for using expressive therapies in the treatment of trauma.
1.) How did you first become interested in the field of child abuse and neglect?
I had two secretarial jobs when I left high school. One was in the Georgetown Psychiatry department with Dr. Murray Bowen and the other was at the SF Child Abuse Council. I think both these jobs ignited an interest in helping parents with children. I had a young baby myself at 20 so I was always curious about how other parents managed all their responsibilities. At the Child Abuse Council, I was left alone a lot of the time while the director and co-director attended meetings. I began to field questions about parenting, prevention of child abuse, community resources, and before I knew it, I seemed to become the “go to” person.
At this point, I returned to school, wanting to know more about how to talk to parents so they would listen. One of my jobs was to be a volunteer at a “hotline” and I remember often taking the midnight to 7 AM shift and getting many desperate calls from lonely, depressed, or anxious parents. I really enjoyed talking with them and learned as much from them as they seemed to learn from me. I also had the experience of being a co-therapist (with a formerly abusive parent) for a group of moms who physically abused their children. It was amazing to find empathy and connection with parents who found themselves becoming violent with their children.
These were amazing learning experiences but I recognized that I needed a better foundation and I sought out more education and training. However, the interest in prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect began very early for me and it has remained a life-long commitment.
2.) You have authored so many books; do you have a favorite?
One of the earliest professional challenges I undertook was being a group leader for a group for adults abused as children in San Francisco. This was an eye-opening experience, in particular, because of the amazing resiliency that I found among adult women who had suffered physical and sexual abuse and neglect, at the hands of their parents. They turned to each other with remarkable trust and shared their stories and the many ways abuse had affected their relationships, their ability to trust, and the choices they had made in their lives (often feeling undeserving of positive attention or positive outcomes).
I found myself repeating the same messages, quickly learning that people needed to hear things over and over and it took time to integrate new ideas about how their coping strategies had been designed to keep them safe when there was danger, and were not needed any more. I wanted to offer the group members something more concrete, a way they could remind themselves about the ideas they were learning, and I wrote Outgrowing the Pain.
For many reasons, putting that first little book together was something I could not have imagined. Decades later, I still get letters from survivors of childhood abuse, who find its message relevant and more importantly, causes them to reflect and gain insights that help move them forward. I don’t think any other book has been so rewarding as this one, written in the context of trying to be of service to women who had suffered deep injuries, in order to validate their experiences and help them take small steps forward.
3.) Would you like to share some of your favorite recommended readings?
I love books! I appreciate how people organize and share that which they find important and useful. Having said that, the books I appreciate the most are those that suggest “what to do.” After I read something, I usually ask myself the question: “Now that I know this new thing, what effect does it cause in what I do?” It’s not enough to simply store new information, the interesting part to me is how to apply it, what change it causes in my work so that a more positive outcome can occur. I love making improvements to what I do. I love entertaining new ideas and incorporating those theories and approaches that truly help our clients.
I remember that someone at APT put together a list of classics in the field of play therapy. I remember agreeing with that list. However, when responding to that question in February 2015, I would have to say the following books are on the top of my list:
Play Therapy: The Art of The Relationship by Gary Landreth
The Boy who was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry
Understanding Children’s Drawings by Cathy Malchiodi
Advanced Play Therapy by Dee Ray
Anything by Dan Siegel, including No Drama Discipline, Brainstorm, Developing Mind, Parenting from the Inside Out, Mindful Therapist, Mindful Brain, Whole Brain Child
Trauma & Recovery by Judith Herman
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
Filial Play Therapy: Strengthening Parent-Child Relationships Through Play by Rise VanFleet
Group Filial Therapy by Louise Guerney
Theraplay: Helping Parents and Children Build Better Relationships Through Attachment Based Play by Phyllis Booth, Ann Jernberg
4.) Do you have any advice to offer any other new professionals entering the field?
Probably the most relevant advice I can offer is to get good preparation through practice. I think oftentimes clinicians learn by reading and doing homework and having discussions. What is missing sometimes is experiential work: the doing, feeling part. It’s one thing to see clients doing therapeutic art, it’s another to take a stab at doing the art-work yourself. From my point of view, we therapists should never ask clients to do any activities that we haven’t already tried (and processed ourselves).
In addition, as we maneuver through our professional journeys, I think it’s imperative to have a strong support system as well as ample attention to self-care. In other words, good external and internal resources. We therapists tend to be devoted to others. We were attracted to the profession from a place of giving and giving is a noble thing to do. However, we need to make sure that as we give, we also replenish.
My replenishing evolved through my professional career and included walks in the woods with my dog, going to the water, playing tennis, learning yoga, and doing art. It also included time with friends and family. The hardest part was achieving a balance and it may never be perfectly even but definitely needs to be constantly reviewed and calibrated. I suggest that new clinicians focus on themselves almost as much as they do their clients. I often thought to myself that if I followed all the advice I dolled out to others, I would be doing great!
Our careers are a source of great pride and dedication. When all is said and done, you want to look back and smile, knowing that you grew in confidence and skill, remained open to research findings and personal experience, and took care of you and your family in the midst of attending to others the best you could. It should be a broad smile of great satisfaction with what you’ve contributed to enhance and support others’ lives.
5.) We know you are a very creative and artistic individual, did you ever consider a different profession?
Well, there’s still time for a new profession. I’ve been considering musical theater. I know that my roles would be limited to parental figures (Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother is a great example), but I would love to be part of a “cast” and have an audience applauding for more than a lecture! I also love to paint although I know how difficult it is to have a career as an artist. I think it goes without saying that a career in tennis would have been awesome as well: In this arena I considered being a sports psychologist, a tournament director, or a line’s person or referee. (Did you know that my secret client “wish list” had John McEnroe on the top of the list?)
6.) What are your plans for this next stage of your career?
Judy Rubin, art therapist extraordinaire is one of my heroes. I have watched her make great efforts to “chronicle” the field of art therapy by creating video tapes of people doing art therapy (as a legacy for the next generation). This has renewed my interest in providing educational materials that chronicle play and sand therapies for generations to come. Sometimes we are in the midst of a movement that is advancing approaches, by reviewing and revising, as well as creating. I have an interest in developing webinars, continuing to consult and mentor new therapists, and continue to promote integrated approaches to treatment.
These are the things that currently call to me, in addition to the tennis court and the swimming pool. My life going forward will be about BALANCE, keeping my feet on the ground (literally… no more traveling the globe), and discovering what myriad things can “light my fire.” I am also eager to see more of my work and play friends, breathe fresh air (no more long commutes), and see more of my family.
Thank you Deanne, for asking me to write a little about me-self. One of my greatest joys has been to know you over these many decades and to have made a playful and loyal friend so we can have a mutual admiration society and a soul sister!