Response-based practice is an approach that is centered around preserving human

dignity, particularly for those harmed by violence. The suffering experienced by

violence survivors can be articulated in a number of ways. We can use the language of

psychology and psychiatry, which is standard. However, we can also use subtler, more

life-affirming forms such as poetry, metaphor, story. We can also explore the small “p”

political expression of resistance as a response to violence. I have found this process to

be stimulating and energizing, for both teller and listener. (Counsellor Vikki Reynolds

says this is one way to avoid the feeling of “work fatigue” referred to by psychiatrists as

“vicarious trauma” – when you explore the story of resistance rather than the story of

pain, it is enlivening).


Everyone who has been mistreated resists in some way. Holistic and Indigenous

approaches consider the physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual aspects of

experience. I am interested in how these knowledges and safety responses inform acts

of resistance, including the persistant presence of hope, spirit and the refusal to be

contented with violence, mistreatment, misogyny.


Years back, I developed an image called Dignity Across the Lifespan to show how the

human need for dignity looks differently depending on our age and life stage. It is based

on a six-direction medicine wheel. We enter the wheel, from above, into the east. We

move through infancy and childhood, youth, adulthood and elderhood, finally exiting

the wheel, into Earth, and then back to source. This journey all takes place on Mother

Earth, or, as the legend would say, on the back of the turtle.


To attend to the dignity of the new ones, we listen for their cries, relieve their suffering,

change their diaper as soon as possible so they know we are here to care for them. We

do not let the young ones think they have been abandoned. This is why we attend to

their woes, embracing their little body and show them that wounds can be healed,

stress can be released. We honour the youth or adolescents by acknowledging their

need for increased independence. This involves a cyclical movement. We help attend

to their social needs, letting them arc away from us, but pulling them back into our

orbit. They are not ready to break free. And, they will always be with us, as part of our

family, our community, and energetically through our extended, overlapping spirit.

They still need us, but not every moment. Helping youth heal from violence and

humiliation means reminding them of their purpose, of their potential, of their

relationship to the tribe or group. We remind them that they are loved and that the

community needs them. We honour their spirit of resistance and the ways they enact

this, based on their age, their experienced and their life force.


Once into adulthood, a number of lifetime wounds have likely accumulated. Attending

to dignity of the adult means witnessing their competency, their love, their parenting

and offering support and friendship. We avoid humiliating another person at all costs.

This avoids the collective social wounds which become harder to address over time.

When harmed by violence, the adult holds the intellectual capacity to assess situations,

work with their inner radar, sense danger, analyse risk and potential backlash. Those

who have lived without relative social privilege do this the best. There are many

approaches to helping adults heal.


Treating elders and the older ones with dignity is built in to the fabric of many societies.

Indigenous and non-western cultures esteem elders, see them as teachers and value

their knowledge as part of a worldview. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen in

practice, but it is part of the continuity of culture and societies over time. We need the

older ones to pass down their knowledge, of survival, of death and grieving and of

celebration. We need their knowledge in relation to how to take care of Earth, how to

live simply and connected to All That Is. Sometimes, the older ones hold the language

which needs to be passed along if cultures are to survive intact. Indigenous elders hold

wisdom. During my work in the Yukon, I learned from elders about the importance of

humility, humour and modesty. I saw how they could be playful and fun, teasing and

laughing while careful to never humiliate others or denigrate themselves. Despite all

they had gone through, they lived with a lightness of heart.


The Kaska elders taught me that, while healing is important, you don’t have to talk

about everything. Many chose to keep that basket of colonial violence in residential

school closed. Some had decided to take these experiences to the grave. I also learned

that, if you want to talk about these horrors, sometimes you have to have a drink first.

One elderly woman was brought to see me, “the counsellor.” She had been drinking.

She told me, “I had to have a drink before I came here because they told me you want

to know what they did to me in residential school.” Then, she proceeded to explain the

horrendous acts of priest violence to a small girl. This woman had the knowledge of

how to “manage” this experience, how to keep things in balance. She knew if she

stayed sober, she could not give voice to these terrible acts of inhumanity. She knew

how to preserve her dignity. She knew there was not enough time left in her life to try

to process her experience therapeutically. She was trying to enjoy the rest of her time

here, minimizing the power of the colonizer. Treating the older ones with dignity is

about respecting them, being patient and not treating them like children. It is about

being slower and gentler, and listening. This woman’s resistance was about not letting

that priest enter her life and her mind, every single day. It was not about making peace

with him.


Dignity may be different for everyone, culturally speaking. For me, it is about allowing

people the freedom to choose in their lives, not telling people what to do, not acting like

“the expert.” On my path, it has been about minimizing the voice and influence of

psychological and psychiatric discourses, minimizing structural violence and the way we

see ourselves. As a counsellor, my task, as I see it, is to act as da Vinci’s Vetruvian man,

holding up arms and legs to keep the walls from closing in on the client or community

member. Structural violence and its proponents want to instruct, crush, shape, dictate

and decide how we should live. With my relative power as a professional, I can try to

create space for people to explore, to tell stories, to re-articulate who they are and how

they can live more fully. I can invite the system to decolonize, but in the meantime, how

can I be a “protective factor” or a “positive social response” to the people I work for

(e.g. community members).


What is a positive social response?

When someone discloses violence (or when violence is revealed), that person receives a

“social response” from family, friends and professionals. When the social responses are

largely positive, that person will go on to recover from violence relatively quickly and

smoothly, without their sense of self being too attacked. When the social responses are

negative, that person is likely to suffer more profoundly, over a larger period of time.

That person is likely to be given a mental health diagnosis, to self-harm or to feel

suicidal. They are more likely to try to end their life.

Most people who have disclosed physical or sexualized violence tend to receive both

positive and negative social responses. Indigenous or marginalized women are more

likely to experience racism and social interactions that are patronizing, degrading or

humiliating. They are more likely to be blamed for the violence. The conclusion one

may draw from this body of literature, and from first hand accounts of violence

survivors, is that the main “trauma” or injury comes after disclosure. Most of the

intense suffering is linked to being blamed, to being shown one is unworthy or not

valued…. That they should just “get over it.” Research shows that many people, mostly

women, more often Indigenous and women-of-colour, are abused or harassed in school,

in university and/or in the work place. The fact that most institutions have no

meaningful way of stopping this violence and assisting the victim means we have an

ongoing lack of physical and cultural safety in our Canadian institutions. We know that

most people who report, or “whistle blowers” are likely to be made to suffer, to

experience some backlash, including job loss, after reporting harassment. These are

conditions which cause ongoing suffering and serve to exclude certain people from

positions of power, influence and decision-making. This relates to the need for

decolonizing. The refusal to extend human dignity to a large sector of our population

points to systemic and structural violence. What is needed to heal is care, fairness,

justice in all forms (racial justice, eco-justice, legal justice). Decolonization initiatives

can take up the language of social justice, of human rights, of revolutionary love.

As we look back to the human lifespan, dignity at every stage is powerful, is meaningful

and is necessary to create a society that will not support violence; one that will help

people heal and abandon the need to hurt, abuse or mistreat another person,

individually or systemically.



Recommended Reading on the Connection Between Social Responses and Well-Being

After Violence (Compiled by Allan Wade, Centre for Response-Based Practice)

Andrews, B. (1995). Bodily shame as a mediator between abusive experiences and

depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 104, 277-285.

Andrews, B. (1997). Bodily shame in relation to abuse in childhood and bulimia. British

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Andrews, B. & Hunter, E. (1997). Shame, early abuse and course of depression in a

clinical sample: A preliminary study. Cognition and Emotion, 11, 373-381.

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social support, and posttraumatic stress in postwar Kosovo. J. Nerv. Ment. Dis

2004;192(11):762–70. [PubMed: 15505520]

Andrews B, Brewin CR, Rose S. (2003). Gender, social support, and PTSD in victims of

violent crime. J. Trauma Stress 2003;16(4):421–27. [PubMed: 12895025]

Ayers, T. Sandler, I. West, S. Roosa, M. (1996). A Dispositional and Situational

Assessment of children’s Coping: Testing Alternative Models of Coping. Program for

Prevention research Arizona State University. Journal of Personality 64:4, December


Bal S, De Bourdeaudhuij I, Crombez G, Van Oost P. (2006). Predictors of trauma

symptomatology in sexually abused adolescents: a 6-month follow-up study. Journal of

Interpersonal Violence. 2005;20(11):1390–405.

Ballan,, Self-Defense Among Women With Disabilities An Unexplored Domain in

Domestic Violence Cases Michelle S. Ballan1 Molly Burke Freyer2. violence against

women Journal. 1Columbia University, New York, NY, USA. New York University,

New York, NY, USA. Columbia University, School of Social Work, 1255 Amsterdam

Avenue, New York, NY 10027, USA Email:

Burstow, B. (1992) Radical Feminist Therapy. Newbury Park. CA: Sage.

Borja SE, Callahan JL, Long PJ. (2006). Positive and negative adjustment and social

support of sexual assault survivors. J. Trauma Stress 2006;19(6):905–14. [PubMed:


Brewin CR, Andrews B, Valentine JD. (2000). Meta-analysis of risk factors for

posttraumatic stress disorder in trauma-exposed adults. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol

2000;68(5):748–66. [PubMed: 11068961]

Brewin, C. R., Andrews, B & Rose, S. (2003). Gender, Social Support, and PTSD in

Victims of Violent Crime. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2003, 16(4): 421-427

Brewin, C. R. & Andrews, B., (1990) ‘Attributions of blame for marital violence: A

study of antecedents and consequences’, Journal of Family and Marriage 52. 757-67.

Brewin, Chris R.; Andrews, Bernice; Rose, Suzanna. Fear Helplessness Horror. (2000).

Journal of Traumatic Stress, Jul2000, Vol. 13 Issue 3, p499, 11p;

Brewin, Chris R.; Andrews, Bernice; Valentine, John D. (2000). Meta-Analysis of Risk

Factors for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Trauma-Exposed Adults. Journal of

Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 68(5), Oct 2000. pp. 748-766.

Brewin, C. Andrews, B. Valetine, J. (2000). Meta-analysis of risk factors for

posttraumatic stress disorder in trauma-exposed adults. Journal of Consulting and

Clinical Psychology. 68, 748-766.

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healing and hurtful effects on psychological and physical health outcomes. Violence,


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neural response to threat. Psychological Sciences, 2006;17(12):1032–39. [PubMed:


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Mental Hospital, 1860—1900. (2011). Issue: 22 Pages: 285-301 Date: sept 2011.

History of psychiatry

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Fazel, M., & Stein, A. (2003). Mental health of refugee children: Comparative study.

British Medical Journal, 327(7407), 134.

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support sources. Violence Vict 2001;16(6):673–92. [PubMed: 11863065]

Fournier, S. & Crey, E. (1997). ‘Stolen From Our Embrace: The Abduction of First

Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities’, Vancouver: Douglas

& McIntyre.

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interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biological

Psychiatry 2003;54(12):1389–98. [PubMed: 14675803]

Hyman S, Gold S, Cott M. (2003). Forms of social support that moderate PTSD in

childhood sexual abuse survivors. Journal of Family Violence 2003;18(5): 295–300.

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support, and the development of dissociative tendencies. Child Abuse & Neglect, 1996;

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disaster: a longitudinal perspective. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 1993;32(Part

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and outcome. American Journal of Community Psychology, 1992;20(2):211–41.

[PubMed: 1605134]

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the relation between trauma exposure and trauma reaction: a survey among UN soldiers

and relief workers. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. 2003;44(5):415–23. [PubMed:


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social support, and coping processes. Annu. Rev. Psychol 1985;36:531–72. [PubMed:


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the social support deterioration deterrence model. Journal of Personality and Social

Psychology. 1996;71(3):498–511.

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adjustment following childhood maltreatment. Child Abuse & Neglect. 1997;21(2):211–

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Providers? Violence and Victims, Vol. 11, No. 2, pages 143-159.

Vervliet, De Mol, Broekaert, Derluyn (2003). ‘That I Live, that’s Because of Her’:

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