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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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)”