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Paige Martin and Jessie Axsom emphasized the importance of patient consent during any interaction with a health care professional. Credit: Alykhan Lalani

A student-run conference in the School of Nursing Saturday drew nearly 200 students and community members to talk about incorporating mental health awareness into health care. 

The "Reimagining Mental Health" conference featured speakers from across the Philadelphia and Penn communities who discussed harm reductionist and trauma-informed approaches to health care. "Harm reduction" refers to the practice of medical professionals accepting that patients may engage in risky behaviors such as illicit drug use, working to meet patients where they are rather than judging them. "Trauma-informed care" means that health care providers assume that a patient has experienced some type of trauma and act accordingly. 

The conference was organized by Paige Martin and Jessie Axsom, two students in Penn's Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. Martin and Axsom said they came up with the idea for the conference about a year ago when they realized that harm reduction and trauma-informed care were almost never discussed in the Nursing School curriculum. The two worked for six months to plan the interdisciplinary event that attracted undergraduate and graduate students from many schools at Penn. 

“Trauma-informed care was actually identified as a critical need of the West Philadelphia community, and Philadelphia has been forced to become a leader in harm reduction in their response to the opioid crisis, but both of these topics have been completely left out of our nursing education in any meaningful way,” Axsom said. “Our frustration and our anger drove us to organize an event that would at least start to address those needs.”

Before they reached out to potential speakers, Martin and Axsom said, they established a set of goals they hoped their conference would achieve. The duo hoped to increase awareness among health system workers and community members about harm reduction and trauma-informed care. They also hoped to provide audience members with tangible strategies to practice these methods in their everyday lives and future careers. 

Martin and Axsom emphasized the importance of patient consent during any interaction with a health care professional. They said that many patients do not know they can deny medical treatment, a misunderstanding that inhibits trauma-informed care. 

“What does [consent] look like? Is it used, is it practiced? And my answer most of the time, especially in a teaching hospital, is no,” Martin said. “Both trauma-informed care and harm reduction can provide very useful ideas and thoughts and improve patient outcome. We have to educate and share with the people that we’re working with rather than telling them what to do.” 

The conference included seven speakers and panel discussions which spanned a wide variety of topics. A woman struggling with mental health shared a personal story about how her recovery led her to empowerment through sex work, representatives from the West Virginia abortion organization Holler Health Justice discussed the importance of reproductive justice, and health care providers shared how harm reduction manifests itself in their jobs. 

Saleemah McNeil, a retired postpartum doula, spoke at the conference about trauma-informed care during the birthing process. She said she appreciates events like this one because they provide safe spaces for learning outside of a typical educational institution. 

“Maternal mortality is my passion, and I do quite a bit of speaking engagements and advocacy efforts to make sure that not only are we raising awareness, but we are moving from stagnation to action orientation,” McNeil said. “I hope that [the audience] got resources so they can better understand how to delegate when issues arise.”

First-year social work graduate student Peter McBride said he hopes to incorporate the harm reduction strategies he learned at the conference into his field placement at a men’s homeless shelter where most residents suffer from mental illness or substance abuse disorders. 

“The most salient part from this that I’ll take back is to focus a little more on client expertise than patient expertise, with the knowledge that the practitioner expertise really doesn’t matter if the client doesn’t see how it’s useful,” McBride said. 

Speaker Iris Kimbrough, a birth and postpartum specialist, emphasized how trauma informed care can play a role in daily life through peer support. 

“It’s not like you have to be a licensed therapist or you have to have some kind of special degree to be able to hold those spaces for yourself and for your community as a whole,” Kimbrough said. ‘We really need to normalize that and make it more accessible and more of a thing that people are willing to even put themselves out there and do.”

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