Uplifting Hearts and Hope: Counseling at Sunnybrook

In 2014 the U.S. Senate declared June as National PTSD Awareness Month, a disease that impacts 25% of our foster care youth often stemming from histories of abuse, trauma, and neglect.

At the age of five, Kenny Spansel knew he was different. His speech impediment stirred up feelings of doubt and insecurity, so much that he wasn't even sure he would pursue his dream vocation of counseling.

"Throughout the years, I was shown great kindness by others willing to encourage and invest in me through varying challenges. I never forgot the kindness shown to me by others and wanted to provide the same to those facing challenging times,” Spansel remarked. 

“Although I didn’t think I was capable of becoming a counselor due to my impediment, I trusted in God with this calling, knowing that God shows His power in our weakness. 

I love counseling and encouraging others with the same encouragement that God has given me," Spansel said. “Every day I get to do the two things that last forever- invest in the souls of people and speak the word of God,” Spansel said.  

He earned a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and Counseling as well as a master’s degree in Biblical Studies. He applies knowledge from both degrees in his position as Director of Counseling at Sunnybrook.

Strengthening Foster Families Through Loving Ministry 

Spansel specializes in trauma-informed counseling with a focus on addressing attachment and adjustment issues prevalent among foster teens. During individual counseling sessions, he listens to the perspective of each teen and provides coping strategies to improve life skills.

Almost every resident at Sunnybrook has experienced trauma, often severe trauma, before moving into the group home. Fortunately, every resident can access counseling services to work through the trauma and grief they experienced as a child. During the intake process each adolescent is assessed for counseling needs as counseling is a core component of the program.  

Counseling helps trauma survivors identify, evaluate, and challenge their negative thinking patterns and assumptions. Understanding how these negative thoughts impact one’s behavior can motivate and empower an adolescent to change and grow from his or her traumatic experiences. Spansel equates counseling to resetting a broken limb or bone.

“If a broken limb is not reset properly, the bone will begin to “heal” improperly, almost always without a full range of motion. Although the non-reset bone may not hurt if it’s not aggravated, the range of motion is minimal. To reset a bone, there may be temporary pain, but a lifetime of full range motion lies ahead. Healing from trauma is the same way. If not treated, youth will likely not have a full range of emotional/ interpersonal expression and understanding. Although it is often painful to begin talking about trauma, we do so gently and gradually, allowing the brain to integrate painful experiences through therapy to promote healing,” Spansel said. Trauma informed counseling focuses on a person’s trauma and how it has impacted their perspective, thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. It offers a safe, trusting environment to overcome the challenges and struggles of an adverse childhood.

Signs, Symptoms and Threats of Trauma to One’s Well-Being

Trauma results from a perceived threat to one’s well-being. In the absence of effective coping skills or when left unresolved, the effects of trauma can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Symptoms of this anxiety disorder can include flashbacks, distrust, reactive attachment, hyper arousal, nightmares, sleep disruptions, and appetite changes. These symptoms can impair one’s ability to function and relate to others on a daily basis, causing greater behavioral problems among teens.

Furthermore, research from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Center for PTSD suggests exposure to multiple traumas increases the risk of PTSD, and women have a higher chance of experiencing PTSD after trauma than men. Sometimes witnessing a traumatic event can be enough to cause PTSD.

PTSD Rates for Youth in Foster Care Surpass Those of War Veterans

Six out of 100 Americans, or 6%, are diagnosed with PTSD according to the National Center for PTSD. When accounting for the foster care population alone, one in four foster care youth, or 25%, experience PTSD. 

Child Protective Services’ reports youth in foster care are five times more likely to be diagnosed with a behavioral or mental health disorder than youth outside the foster care system.

Foster children have a higher rate of PTSD than war veterans because their frontal lobes are not fully developed at the time of the trauma. Negative impacts of constant stress can be harder to navigate as a child, and trauma that occurs at a young age is often referred to as complex post-traumatic stress disorder because it exists during developmental milestones. This anxiety disorder often stems from abandonment, neglect, or constant dysfunction and chaos during childhood. Sixty percent of sexually abused children and 42% of physically abused children are diagnosed with PTSD. 

Trauma's Traffic

A 2013 study by Salazar, Keller, Gowen, and Courtney found an astonishingly 90% of foster care youth alumni were abused and/or neglected as a child. “For the child developing in an abusive environment, traumatic experiences soon become expected and predictable, but never normal. In God’s mercy, the brains of children who experience repeated traumatic abuses begin to develop differently, particularly in the way they see and interpret the world and respond to threatening situations,” Spansel explained in Trauma's Traffic, a piece he authored back in 2020. 

“Children growing up in abusive environments interpret experiences at home as threatening, and are often met with fight, flight, or freeze behaviors. In abusive situations, this can be lifesaving. In foster home placements, this can lead to confusion and frustration. The brain wiring developed to protect oneself in abusive home environments is still very active. Although foster homes can be the safest place in the world, children brought into these homes can interpret benign experiences as threatening, and can respond with the same fight, flight, freeze behaviors that have been engrained. Changes in environment do not change brain wiring overnight.

As we know, the work is tedious, and requires much patience and grace. For the foster child in critical need of learning a new set of rules for the road of life, the work is lifesaving. Sometimes the change can be seen, sometimes it cannot, but change does come with perseverance. I love seeing light bulbs go on in people’s minds as we work together and face painful memories of the past,” Spansel added. “The bravery that foster youth show as they function in society despite coming from traumatic backgrounds is amazing.”

Uplifting Hearts & Hope During PTSD Awareness Month

We encourage companies and organizations across the nation to join Sunnybrook in raising awareness of PTSD this month. “The label of PTSD is often accurate and can be of great benefit to receive needed services.  More often than not, though, what these behaviors demonstrate is a child trying to adapt to a world that is not constant chaos - to understand that they don’t have to be always on guard waiting for the next hammer to drop - to understand at a subconscious level that their chaos can be met with calm, and slowly begin to internalize that calm and create a new norm by the grace of God,” Spansel added. 

If you or someone you love is struggling from the effects of trauma, please seek help. In addition to professional ministries like Sunnybrook, there’s an abundance of resources available for PTSD survivors, including reputable online self-help programs and self-screenings made available by the National Center for PTSD.

To support Sunnybrook’s incredible work counseling foster teens experiencing PTSD, click fill out a request form or call us today at (601) 856-6555.

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