Learning to Treat Complex Trauma

As a young mother, Christine Andersen ’96 MA was beset by symptoms she didn’t understand. Her limbs would go numb, she would suddenly have flashbacks to childhood places, and she felt compelled to chop off her hair. She had episodes where she felt completely disconnected from herself and the world.

It is the nature of complex trauma symptoms with childhood roots to rise with triggering events in adulthood. At the time, post-traumatic stress disorder, especially with delayed onset, was not well understood, and relatively few therapists were equipped to deal with the depth of her problem.

After having been misdiagnosed 10 years before, with the recurrence of a second bout of flagrant symptoms, Andersen began therapy with psychologist Leslie Matlen ’82 MA, ’88, Ph.D. who recognized that Andersen was suffering from a severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder long before the complex spectrum was widely understood. That alliance ultimately saved her life.

Andersen doesn’t want other traumatized clients to have to wait to get the proper therapy, especially with the recent advances in the understanding of complex trauma. She decided the best way she could help was to fund training to put more informed clinicians in the field to treat extreme trauma survivors like herself.

She turned to the UConn Foundation, which worked with her to establish a fund to educate UConn doctoral students in the Clinical Psychology program about how to recognize and treat complex trauma. The Psychology Department will use the fund to bring an international expert to UConn for a day of training and send students to a national conference every year.

“The goal is ultimately to help traumatized people,” Andersen said. “Bringing in an expert and having the students go to conferences will really enhance their training.”

Christine Courtois
Christine Courtois. (Credit: David Henry)

The first speaker, international trauma expert Christine Courtois, spoke on the Storrs campus to graduate students, faculty, and UConn counseling staff during a daylong training session in October.

“This [fund] is really going to augment the training we can provide for treating people with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. That is a huge problem in mental health,” Marianne Barton, director of clinical training at UConn’s Department of Psychology.

“A significant proportion of individuals with mental health issues have a history of trauma. It’s important that all of our students learn how to work with that. This fund allows us to bring in international experts even beyond our faculty to provide that specialized training,” Barton said.

Complex trauma is trauma that affects the individual’s sense of self and interferes with the capacity to regulate one’s feelings, thoughts, and actions, Barton said. It most often occurs in the context of important relationships and is repeated over time. As a result, it undermines relationships as well as the sense of self. It is hard to treat because it has such pervasive effects.”

“The more trauma informed therapists we have out there, the more people we can help,” Andersen said.

Andersen, a retired high school dyslexia specialist from Storrs, gave a $15,000 donation to launch The Leslie Matlen and Christine Miller Andersen Fund. She is committed to donating to the fund each year until she reaches a maximum of $100,000 and has already raised another $20,000 from other donors.

Andersen’s gift comes in the midst of the UConn Foundation’s Transform Lives initiative, which aims to double the amount of funds raised for scholarships and other student support.