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Jamie Wehmeyer

Coordinator, KC Northland Strong
Owner, Jamie Wehmeyer, LLC

I was a baby when I first started working in the behavioral health field after graduating with my undergraduate degree. I came out of school knowing nothing I actually needed in this field I was entering into. My first job was in a substance use facility for women and their children. The women were often court ordered to come in for treatment and their kids accompanied them so they wouldn’t lose them. That’s where I first started paying attention to the prevalence of trauma in our communities. I saw no way for these women to move through their addictive behaviors if they didn’t also address their trauma. So I became focused on the clinical aspects and how to help them heal. That work followed me throughout my career. I got my master’s in social work and my license in clinical social work, and then began working on the mental health side of behavioral health. I learned about these buzzwords like ‘trauma-informed practices’ and what all that meant. And even as I’ve switched to other fields, that same thread of trauma-informed work followed me.

How KC Northland Strong was born

I’m a licensed clinical social worker, and my work over the last 25+ years has primarily been in the mental health field with community mental health centers. My work in community behavioral health includes substance abuse, mental health, and sometimes a combination of both. But over the last two years, I’ve become the coordinator for KC Northland Strong, which includes Clay, Platte, and Ray Counties, and is a collaboration between the public health sector, mental health sector, school districts, and

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anyone with a focus on building trauma-informed and resilient communities.

 

It started in May 2019, when Alive and Well in the KC metro area brought together all of the community organizations in the region doing work surrounding trauma-informed practices. Counties from Kansas and Missouri talked about what we were doing, and we learned about adverse community experiences. At the time, I was involved and tasked with bringing together the Northland community because I’d worked there for so long. At the meeting we said, ‘This isn’t supposed to be a one-time thing. We need to keep doing this work.’ So that group of us continued to meet, and that’s how KC Northland Strong was born. We kept inviting people to join us, and we’ve been meeting ever since.

How the trauma of losing her son motivated her even more to do the work she does

My life was profoundly changed in 2017 when my 17-year-old son, Jake, was murdered. And that’s when I also recognized how our communities were not doing enough to address trauma people experience. I had always been the person working in the system, I was never the person who was having to go through the system.

 

I have another younger son who had to go through the school system after his brother was killed. Being a consumer of that system and seeing how little they knew about taking care of my son and our family changed things for me. Being a victim and having to maneuver the legal system, and experiencing first-hand how the system retraumatizes victims, had a huge impact on me. Being a consumer of physical health services like going to the doctor changed things for me, as well. It helped me realize there was so much more work to be done in our community around trauma and resilience. I was fortunate enough to start working with a group focused on community wellbeing. It’s an honor for me to work with KC Northland Strong to address trauma and disparities in all systems, not just schools. It’s also the public health systems, the health departments, the legal systems, the mental health systems — all of these entities here coming together to say, ‘The folks we serve every day are experiencing incredible amounts of trauma. How do we address that?’ That’s what KC Northland Strong is about. And it’s in my heart to teach people the impact that trauma has, and the different paths people can take to heal.

 

My son’s become an angel on my shoulder. He’s what’s leading me to do this, and why I want people to understand more about trauma. His death is not something that impacted just me. It impacted my husband, my other son, my family, my son’s friends and classmates. And people could have done better to take care of all of us. I don’t think people intentionally harmed us, it’s just that people don’t know. And I hope for people to learn to understand, so they can take better care of each other.

Even at the organization where I was lead in integrating trauma-informed practices, where they

certainly got a lot of things right, there were two things that stood out to me. While my son’s death had the most profound impact on me, the impact of that trauma on co-workers who knew me, knew my kids, and knew my family was greater than leaders realized, and more could have been done to support them. Then, others at work seemed uncomfortable with my grief and gave the impression to me that I could leave my grief at the door. That was not realistic. Grief is going to be a part of the rest of my life. It is vital to have folks understand there are ways to interact with people who experience trauma, or a traumatic loss like in my case, when they return back to their workplace or school.

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The way Jake died was horrific, and my younger son, along with all of us, struggled with flashbacks we had to relive again and again. Many of his teachers were gracious and allowed him time to heal, but some struggled with his need to listen to his headphones or get up and walk around school because he couldn’t sit still for that long without getting these flashbacks. This is an area we need to change our stance on. We should always be thinking, ‘What happened? What is this person’s story? How can we do better to support them as they move through it?’

 

If you were to ask me, my son, or my husband, we would all tell you that my younger son’s vice principal is a hero. He had been one of his teachers the year before Jake’s death. He is 100% one of the kindest and most empathetic individuals we know. Without him, I don’t think my younger son would have made it through school. Because he didn't excuse my younger son’s behavior when he made bad choices or did something ‘wrong.’ Instead, he worked with me as the parent to ask, ‘What’s the best way to implement a consequence that he can learn from that doesn’t do more harm to him?’

 

For example, one time he got in trouble for skipping school, and the initial response from one of the administrators was that he needed in-school suspension for a week. I was adamant that wouldn’t be realistic for a kid who couldn’t even sit in a classroom for an hour. So the vice principal had a conversation with me: ‘You’re right. There’s no way this would be successful. Let’s try something different.’ Instead, his consequence was that he had to have lunch hour in the office for a week and miss it with his friends. Time and again, this vice principal was a champion for my son. He was always non-judgmental towards my son and about our parenting. He was just like, ‘Help me learn how I can help you.’ And for that, I’m forever grateful.

Photo by Elizabeth Ladeen Photography

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What are the biggest challenges people face in recovering from trauma?

The last year-and-a-half has really brought forth some of those challenges. Folks who maybe had no mental health issues in the past, or had been able to manage them on their own if they did have minor struggles, COVID has brought some of those things out in full force. And it’s forced us as a community to talk about mental health differently. There’s a real understanding that our physical health and mental health are very connected. We can see that now, whether we want to see it and talk about it or not.

One of the biggest barriers for people to talk about their traumas and move forward to heal is the fact that so many people don’t understand the widespread impact of trauma. Unless it’s a private trauma and only one individual that’s involved, trauma does not just affect the person it happens to. Public traumas and community traumas impact large numbers of people, and many don’t know how to help them heal. The last year has been so challenging because the healers are also experiencing trauma.

 

People working in public health are working so hard to keep everyone safe while living through what we’re all collectively experiencing. They and their families have suffered from COVID and potentially had people in their lives die from it. There’s unresolved grief in our communities that people are having to learn to deal with, and that’s where my heart is. How do we wrap our arms around each other as we move through that process to help all of us heal, but particularly the people used to taking care of everyone else? How do we honor that they need to heal from everything they’ve experienced too?

Most of the people I know in helping fields, from public health workers to first responders to teachers, we don’t do this for the money or glory. We do this because we’re passionate about what we do, and we love our jobs. People in these fields are the unsung heroes of our communities. They were having tough conversations with people even before COVID. These jobs were hard because they were already working with people who have experienced traumas from poverty, discrimination, and a variety of disparities before the pandemic happened. I’ve had the honor to hear stories from public health workers about how many people they know who have been impacted by COVID, about the deaths, about how people in our community have treated them.

 

A colleague told me about how she went to an event last summer, and her peers for many years wouldn’t even speak to her because she was working in the public health department. The public health departments had been putting out information about restrictions and protocols around COVID, and there had been such divisiveness surrounding mask-wearing. She told me, ‘Jamie, I was devastated.’ Right now, public health departments are no different from the rest of our country as far as not having enough employees and struggling to keep people hired. People working there are working incredibly long hours, doing jobs they were not hired to do, just to try to keep our communities safe. They’re stepped up and are doing everything they can to keep us safe, even while experiencing their own traumas.

Burnout is one of the biggest reasons why we can’t keep people in these fields. They know they can go somewhere else to work outside of the public health and mental health fields and they’ll get paid more, not hear so many stories of trauma, and not see so many folks struggling. Building trauma-informed organizations and communities is a key way we can keep people employed in public health fields. We can motivate new people to come into the field.

 

Trauma-informed practices aren’t just about the people coming through our doors to get help. It’s also about honoring our own stories and addressing things like burnout. It’s about learning how to take good care of our staff so they’ll want to keep showing up. Organizations who take the time to understand that and build resilience among their employees will see that shift happen with less turnover. The safer people feel to come into work, the more likely they’ll be to stay.

Where should we be taking community conversations about mental health next?

There are individual and community-wide responsibilities in conversations. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to all sorts of organizations about COVID’s impact on mental health, as well as about self-care, resilience, and figuring out how we make it through this. Everyone is tired of hearing the words ‘self-care,’ and I am too. But the reality is we have to be doing things on an individual level to maintain our mental wellness. And when we’re not doing well, we need to recognize those symptoms and understand there are things to do to help. So even though

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everyone is tired of hearing the words, I hope we don’t stop saying the words, and that we don’t stop teaching about the ways individuals can maintain their own resilience. Some of those things are really simple, like being kind. I challenge people to practice one act of kindness a day, doing something for themselves or somebody else, because it’s proven to help your brain function better.

 

We also need to make sure we have things like movement in our lives, and that we’re practicing empathy and doing it from a non-judgemental stance. One of the hardest things I’ve watched during the pandemic is the widespread divisiveness. It’s not good for our country, our community, or us as individuals. We need to be able to step back and ground ourselves.

 

The other piece of this is community responsibility. I can think of community as my local community here in the Northland, or on a bigger scale, the State of Missouri, or even the entire country. But the community has a responsibility to find and address disparities. We have to figure out what resources we can provide and if they’re available to everybody, fair and equitably. And if they’re not, how can we make sure that changes? Across the country, there’s a shortage of mental health workers and nurses right now. And we need to come together to figure out how to fill that gap.

Oprah just released a book with trauma expert, Dr. Bruce Perry, called ‘What Happened To You?’ that embraces the language of trauma-informed practices. For the two of them to write a book together that honors a person’s story is amazing. For me, the easiest way to understand trauma-informed practices is changing the question from ‘what’s wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you?’ As a clinician, a teacher, a doctor, whatever my field is, instead of pointing a finger at somebody and asking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’, I can sit with them and say, ‘Tell me what happened to you.’ And that can be profound because it doesn’t add to whatever guilt and shame that person may be experiencing.

 

It also doesn’t have to be said out loud. As I’ve learned more about trauma-informed practices, I’ve gone through an internal shift. When I go to the store and feel like the cashier who’s checking me out is being rude or not nice, in the past my response would have been, ‘Geez, what’s the deal with this person?’ But now, I wonder what happened to them or if they’re having a bad day for some reason. I don’t have that conversation with every person who checks me out at the store, but it’s in my head and shifts everything. That’s the easiest way I’ve come to think about trauma-informed practices. Of course, the State of Missouri also has formal principles established by the Missouri Trauma Roundtable. Those principles are safety, trustworthiness, choice, empowerment, and collaboration. And we use them to guide the work of KC Northland Strong in every interaction and decision we make in regards to our community initiatives.

When was a time you realized you needed to pay more attention to your mental or physical health? How did they impact each other?

When my son was killed, I already had knowledge about trauma. Within a couple months of him dying, I knew I needed to do something for my physical health if I wanted my mental health to stay intact during what was certainly the worst period of my life. So I started running again and being mindful of what I was putting in my body, because I know when we experience trauma, we also start experiencing physical effects. When COVID hit, that profoundly impacted me because it triggered a lot of my fears about losing another family member. With all the restrictions that were being put in place and little choice involved, I felt like others were trying to control me, and I know now that trauma survivors really struggle with feeling as though they don’t have control. I started eating a lot of ice cream and cooking a lot of unhealthy food for comfort. Eventually, I told myself, ‘This has to stop. I don’t feel good.’ I started practicing gratitude and mindfulness. Then I started a meal plan and began working out with a trainer twice a week. In retrospect, it was a way for me to take control of my life again. And I’ve seen a shift with my brain working better than it was, my body feeling less run down, and being able to sleep better.

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Is it hard to listen to your own professional advice sometimes?

So hard! I always tell people, ‘I have to talk about mindfulness, but I stink at it. I don’t like to be still, I don’t like to journal, I don’t like to do yoga or any of that stuff.’ But when I try to look at the silver linings during the pandemic — and this is one of the things that has been imprinted on my brain — doing those things I teach others about actually helps. Isn’t that crazy? So, yeah, it’s hard to take my own advice sometimes.

The other thing I’ve learned since losing my son is the word ‘grace.’ In our house, we practice grace a lot. Even though we all lost the same person, we’re all on a different journey and we’ve all been impacted in different ways. So we give each other a lot of grace for how we have trauma responses and how we work through them. I’ve learned to give myself grace too. When we go through adversity, it’s not a smooth road. Building resilience is a bumpy, sometimes ugly path. Some weeks, I just don’t feel like exercising, for example. And that’s okay as long as I keep moving forward and keep trying.

What are some steps communities can take to begin that journey of collective healing?

It’s ironic because KC Northland Strong started meeting about eight months before COVID hit, and we were taking all this time to develop our plan, figure out what we were going to do and how we were going to gather resources. And when COVID hit, we were like, ‘We just need to move. This is going to impact our community. We need to get to work.’ One of the first things for any community to do to start a healing process is to teach people about trauma and healing and understanding how they don’t go down a linear path. We all have different ways we heal from adversity. We can start by helping individuals understand what trauma looks like and then give them language to describe it. When I changed the question from ‘what’s wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you?’, it was so empowering.

 

The next step in healing is for communities to understand the challenges they’re facing. We have to acknowledge all the disparities and the systemic racism that exists in our communities in order to address them. The other piece of it is — and this is why I’m really proud to work with KC Northland Strong — bringing systems together to create change. At KC Northland Strong we do that by educating and recognizing and celebrating our public health workers. then we look at the bigger level to ask, ‘Who are we leaving out? Who are we not helping to heal?’ And then we go up to the advocacy level, making sure our legislation has a trauma-informed lens and that we are addressing trauma at all levels of our community.

What is one gap you've seen in public health due to social barriers to health, and how has KC Northland Strong filled it?

One of the things we’ve tried to address during the pandemic is how we take care of our healers. Our first responders, mental health professionals, teachers, public health professionals — all the people doing front line work who are completely overwhelmed. We asked, ‘What can we do to help this group of folks? How can we provide support to them in a way that’s not threatening, that’s not forced on them by their employers? How can we provide a space for them to just talk about their fears, to unwind, to laugh?’ So we created what we called a Circle of Care. It’s for helpers in the Northland. We have a private Facebook group they can join and we have conversations there. Some are serious, some are fun. And it’s a safe space for helpers to come together.

 

The other thing we created is monthly Zoom self-care events. They’re 20- or 30-minute sessions where we talk about mindfulness and meditation, then practice them. Early on during COVID, we wanted people to have the space and language to talk about mindfulness because it can be scary. So we partnered with another organization, Human Kind, Inc., and had a ‘Recharge in the Park.’ It was open to the whole community and one of our local businesses that does practices around yoga and meditation provided their services for free. Organizations connected to KC Northland Strong also brought their resources so people could easily access them if they wanted to.

KC Northland Strong is a piece of what I do, but I also do presentations on traumatic loss to teach what it means to experience trauma and move forward from it. I created Jamie Wehmeyer, LLC during the first month of COVID. In these presentations, I share my personal story and how my family and I have moved through the last four years. I also have a four-week group program for parents who have lost a child. I feel so fortunate that I had the language to understand what was happening to my brain and body, so I teach basics about trauma and loss and the differences between grief and traumatic loss. We talk about paths to healing and celebrate ourselves and our kids.

 

I left the organization I was working at because I felt like I was being called to talk more about traumatic loss. Losing my older son, Jake, was not like other types of loss. It was and is more than that. Bad things happen to all of us, but some things impact us profoundly and in ways that we will never be the same. To teach people how to take good care of each other is important to me, and this work has given me the opportunity to share that message.

Honoring the grief men experience

We have a core group of young men, Jake’s friends, who have been in our lives since we lost him. I call them ‘The Boys.’ They’re amazing and still come around to check on us, have dinner, text and visit my younger son to make sure he’s okay. And through them, I’ve learned a lot about how our society places different expectations on men in their grief. There’s an idea that they should be better than they are, faster than they are. Boys express things differently, and I knew that going into this. When we lost Jake, I gave the school a list of his friends’ names because I was like, ‘These boys

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are going to struggle.’ They’ve never experienced anything like losing Jake. And what happened to them was not taken into account when they did struggle. It wasn’t, ‘What happened to you?’ It was, ‘You need to quit acting out.’ And it’s not like it was a mystery. Everyone in our community knew what happened.

 

A mom of one of The Boys texted me a couple of years ago and said, ‘Jamie, I don’t know what to do. My son is struggling and everyone’s telling him he needs to get over it.’ I don’t understand that mentality of ‘boys need to suck it up and be the strong ones and just get over it.’ With regular grief, that’s just not the way it works, and certainly not with traumatic loss. Our bodies will respond to what happens to us whether we want it to or not. For the most part, the women in my life never stopped coming around. They always kept reaching out to me. But that’s not necessarily the same experience men have. I haven’t figured out exactly what I’m going to do with that yet, but I’m going to keep talking about it because it’s not okay. That’s another mission of mine — to help people honor the stories of men’s grief the same way they would honor the stories of women.

Jamie Wehmeyer

Coordinator, KC Northland Strong

Owner, Jamie Wehmeyer LLC

Storytelling and photos by:

Humans of St. Louis / Ava Mandoli