An interview with program leader Athena Phillips

Athena Phillips founded the Integrative Trauma Treatment Center (ITTC) in Portland, OR in 2012. Her desire was to implement a more holistic approach to treating trauma and to address the mental health challenges that result from traumatic experiences. She has brought together her interest in medicine and her intrigue in human behavior and response, to create a multi-phase treatment model for trauma.
This fall, Athena will lead the first delegation of international mental health professionals in our inaugural Multicultural Trauma Treatment (MTT) training in Rwanda. Amidst the busy preparation and recruiting for this extraordinary event, Athena took some time to share her thoughts on her passion for trauma treatment and her predictions for the impact of the first delegation arriving in October.
What inspired you to found the Integrative Trauma Treatment Center in Portland?
I was lucky enough to know what I wanted to focus on even before I had completed my graduate degree; I loved working with trauma survivors. Observing the capacity of any animal to adapt and survive in the context of adversity is very rewarding and fun. I understand what an honor it is to be a part of someone’s story and felt early on that it was important to ensure that my clients felt they were in a place that was safe and that assumed capacity in them. I had been working in private practice by myself for 5 years and noted that talk-therapy was insufficient in trauma treatment – we needed to address the neurobiology and include the body in the recovery process. However, it was difficult for people to find providers who offered alternative care who were also trauma-sensitive. I wanted to create a sanctuary for people to recover that could address as many of their needs as possible under one roof.
What is unique about the approach used by you and your staff at ITTC?
We place a lot of value on the environment, to start with; our space reflects to our clients that we value them. Our offices are very pretty and feel more like home than an office. The space communicates something to them immediately and is a premise for future work. Additionally, we offer a variety of treatment options that people can choose from: massage, acupuncture, art therapy, medication management, and individual therapy. Survivors are in charge of their treatment plans and can choose what they want to include and what they don’t, but they know that our providers are trauma-informed and will be sensitive to their needs.
You visited Rwanda in December 2015 with a delegation for Women & Leadership. Please tell us more about that experience. What were some significant takeaways from that trip?
Throughout our visit in December, we met with local clinicians who conveyed over and again that what they needed was information. There seemed to be a weariness around our intention until it was clear that our intention was not to come to Rwanda and assume we knew what they needed, but that we authentically wanted to assess needs and see what we could offer. Information and training is a resource we have to give and are thrilled to have the opportunity to share it with the clinicians who have been on the front lines of healing since genocide.
Why is Rwanda particularly interesting from the perspective of mental health and trauma treatment?
ITTC works with trauma from a stage-based perspective. Stage I is establishing safety and trust; this is essential before moving into processing traumatic memories. Many countries, governments, and individuals put a greater effort into minimizing or ignoring trauma (or blaming the victim) than into creating a sense of safety for the victims and accountability for perpetrators. Rwanda has done an excellent job establishing the premise of safety for their population to move beyond genocide and to heal. Their criminal justice system is efficient and personal; there are rules in place to ensure it won’t happen again. Racism and gender-based violence are addressed overtly and clearly identified as the root of genocide. Acknowledgement, accountability, and safety are all in place; these are the basic ingredients for trauma recovery. ITTC will be able to offer training and tools to both Rwandan and international clinicians to do the Stage II work: trauma recovery. (Stage III is preparing for ending treatment and maintenance of new skills.)

Rwanda’s progressive approach to stabilizing their country is inspiring. They have modeled how to recover from atrocity with grace. This is what I would hope for all societies.
What do you foresee being some of the benefits for the first delegation on this program in Rwanda, as well as benefits and impacts on the Rwandan community?
Treatment providers who will be coming to Rwanda from other countries will have layers of clinical expertise and exposure that are extremely rare and rich in opportunity for professional and personal growth. The training itself, is a trauma specialization training that will provide them concrete tools that they can apply to their practice immediately. Treatment at our clinic is housed in a lot of education and training, but we value making the information approachable, applicable, and experiential (not to mention a lot of fun). This particular training is unique; the cross-cultural learning foundation makes this a one-of-a-kind experience. As far as I know, this type of trauma training, in the context of a post-genocidal country where clinicians can share first-hand experience, isn’t happening anywhere else. Rwanda is the perfect location, given the combination of exposure to trauma, appropriate response and rebuilding, local expertise, and the need for increased capacity. The gorgeous landscape and the fact that there are lions, gorillas, elephants, and other incredible animals, is an added bonus, of course!
Anything else you’d like to add?
This opportunity is a dream come true for me. I have always wanted to do international work. Without sounding too hoaky, I feel like I am the luckiest social worker on the planet!


More information about the MTT program:
In case you’re interested to learn more about and potentially join a Multicultural Trauma Treatment (MTT) delegation, you can find more details here. A student version of the program will be added in 2017, and we’ll soon accept applications also from students in a mental health discipline.