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Haskins shares expertise on trauma-informed leadership

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By Melissa Lauber

Dr. Deborah Haskins understands broken hearts. Hers has been shattered. But out of her heartbreak, she helps people – and the church — to heal. 

Haskins, who will be Bishop LaTrelle Easterling’s featured guest at the March 7 Next Level Speaker Series, has never been one to focus on trivial or shallow things. She doesn’t shrink from the heart of the matter. Her life and her ministry are about standing as a witness – body, mind and soul – to the pain and the joy of life and teaching others how to offer a trauma-informed approach to ministry and to healing.

The people of the Baltimore-Washington Conference mourned with her when she lost her husband, the Rev. Dr. Bruce Haskins, who died in 2016. One of the contributing factors of his death was the stress and tragedy surrounding the murder of their son, Joseph. Also, in the fall of 2014, her nephew was shot and killed, one and half months before Bruce went into the medical crisis, Haskins remembers. 

“I had to come to grips with how I was going to be able to breathe through life after our son was murdered, and then the next year, our nephew was murdered, both innocent victims of random violence. And then, because murder murders the heart, my husband, who already had heart challenges, experienced a major medical crisis,” Haskins said. “This created a lot of trauma for not just him, but for me as his wife, for our children, and for all of Bruce's ministry contacts, who were also  breathing through trauma losses.”

Her grief left her impaired. She mourned, she said. And then, “I had to somehow figure out, particularly being a mental health professional and being a person of faith and ministry, how to make a shift. That was definitely a part of my grieving. I loved being a wife. I loved being a pastor's wife. And so, for me, I had to sort out, like, who am I now? Who am I going to be in the time to come for whatever time I have remaining? Who am I if I'm no longer JoJo's mother, and my nephew, Reuben's auntie?”

In answering these questions, Haskins drew upon her decades of working in the mental health field as a licensed clinical professional counselor and as a professor.

In recent years, as a trauma-informed approach to medicine, religion, education, and a variety of other fields came to the forefront, she was able to use this expertise. Coming out of the COVID pandemic has made her work even more relevant.

Trauma, Haskins explained, “can be defined as a normal response to something abnormal that happens to us. … If we live long enough, we will all encounter experiences of trauma.”

“Trauma is hard,” she continued. Sometimes it can feel like someone has taken a butcher knife and ripped your chest open, but not neatly, like in a surgery.” The pain can make it hard to get out of bed, eat, go to work, be in relationship, and take care of yourself. The pain can be so intense that you will do almost anything to stop it. That’s why people drink, why they use drugs, why they gamble, why they emotionally eat, or work themselves to death. That’s why they engage in a lot of risky behaviors.

Trauma-informed care means helping that person in pain, find a safe space to process and heal.

Creating that safe space can involve helping people draw on their emotional intelligence, surrounding them with a community of people that care about them, dealing with the uncomfortable part of themselves and, often, standing by them as they move into therapy, Haskins said.

“People now come to the church, and they may be coming from experiences where their safety was violated. Their worldview now might be distorted, and they might feel that the world is no longer safe for them. They may be anxious or have anxiety and be afraid. They may feel confused or disillusioned, or maybe they’re experiencing clinical depression and are self-medicating. 

“And so, trauma-informed ministry is a way to now reinvent ministry with the understanding that the world is very different,” Haskins said. “We need to become more educated about mental health. We have to understand that we can’t separate mental health from religious health, and physical health, and spiritual health, because a lot of people, when they’re crying out in church, are really crying out because they’re experiencing trauma or some other impact on their mental well-being,” Haskins said.

“The church needs to educate itself about mental health and trauma. And we have to do a better job of not be prescriptive” – telling people how to get rid of their pain and passing judgement. Instead, Haskins said, church leaders need to be more relational and more knowledgeable about public health.

For instance, she said, “there’s this term called ‘social determinants’ of health. That’s the recognition that about 80 percent of how you’re going to fare in life is dependent on the conditions that you were born into.” Knowing this, churches involved in health ministries must also be involved in preventative care and social justice.

Haskins’ experiences as a licensed clinical professional counselor, addiction specialist, scholar-practitioner and teacher have brought her a great deal of wisdom about grief and loss, trauma-informed care, social justice and faith and spiritualty.

She intends to bring this wisdom to the Next Level conversation on March 7, which will be held at Westphalia UMC in Upper Marlboro, Md., and online, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. It’s her hope that all those who attend will discover paths to offer healing in a way that God desires.

 “I'm excited,” Haskins said. “I'm like a little girl in kindergarten to be able to share the space with Bishop Easterling, to have conversations and to invite all the attendees to join us on this journey. I believe all of us, in our own various ways, are trying to lead with well-being at the core, to help people live life more abundantly. So, I'm excited. I'm excited and I'm honored.”

Learn more about the Next Level Speaker Series. Register.

Carolyn Street Feb 5, 2024 1:57pm

This article is so very well written and so informative! Thank you so very much for sharing!

Barbara Campbell Feb 5, 2024 5:30pm

This article was a excellent source of how to help with the pains of unforseen events. I am a member of Gough U M Methodist Church In Cockeysville,MD. Rev Haskins was a former pastor at my church.

Dorothy Walker Feb 6, 2024 11:17am

Thank you Dr Haskins for sharing your story and for your experience, knowledge and insights with us. I’can relate to the tragedy of loss in that the son of a very close family friend was murdered in September 2023. The thresholds of pain are being managed, thanks to a professional counselor who’s been helping the family to get through their great loss. Thank God for your wisdom, knowledge and guidance in helping others through their difficulties in life. Blessings and peace ☮️

Dorothy Feb 12, 2024 2:14pm

This informative article inspires others with crises and is helpful to supporters—blessings and thanks to you for sharing.

Gertie T. Williams, Retired UMC pastor Feb 21, 2024 8:56pm

Thank you Dr. Haskins for the informative article. Having experienced recent loss trauma I am inspired and encouraged by your words. I currently serve as a Chaplin for PSSC an organization of which retired UMC Pastor, Dr. R. Lorraine Brown is CEO. We minister to persons diagnosed with Sickle Cell. These persons suffer excrutiating pain, isolation and misunderstanding to name a few. This article will help me get a better perspective toward meeting my assigned clients where they are. Greatly appreciated!

Thank you! Mar 1, 2024 9:58am

Thank you for your compassionate comments!God bless you and thank you for how you are helping to heal the world!! D. Haskins