Counseling director leads local trauma workshop
By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau
The faces of traumatized children are still fresh in the mind of Dr. Noé Vargas.
He remembers the stoic expression of a 12-year-old girl who, after being asked how her father had hurt her, sat silently as a tear trickled down her cheek. She was clearly suffering, Vargas said, but she had been hardened to the point of being good at hiding her trauma beneath a rigid, almost adult-like exterior.
“She was carrying that abuse that she had experienced, and it had a big impact on me,” said Vargas, who before joining Grand Canyon University as director of counseling programs in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences was a professional counselor and treated refugee children. His clients included Mexican and Latin American immigrants unaccompanied by family or guardians as they crossed the border and landed in U.S. custody.
Vargas said trauma comes from a number of sources. It can stem from a single stressful life event, a history of abuse or a variety of factors — not just from desperate family members, “coyote” smugglers and others who victimize migrant children.
Vargas, a field traumatologist, is presenting at a workshop today at the 11th annual Cesar E. Chavez Behavioral Health Conference at Arizona State University West in Glendale. It’s his first time speaking at the conference, which is sponsored by Terros and attracts behavioral health professionals from across the state to learn to improve services for people in diverse communities.
The workshop, “Understanding Childhood Trauma and Cultural Protective Factors in the Healing Process,” highlights aspects of childhood trauma, including assessment and treatment, and cultural protective factors that can help protect children and families, especially in minority communities.
“I think, culturally, you need to be sensitive to their needs,” Vargas said. “They need someone they can identify with, who speaks their language and can help them to safety.”
“As therapists we’re not there to make any judgments,” he said. “We just need to help them heal.”
To prepare his workshop presentation, Vargas was assisted by GCU senior John Mansoor, a psychology and marketing double-major who’s interested in studying cognitive psychology and neuroscience in graduate school.
Mansoor, 20, said he hopes to pursue a doctorate after his anticipated graduation from GCU in December. Having the chance to work with Vargas and network in the psychology and counseling professions has helped him anticipate the rigorous research and other demands of grad school.
“It was mind-blowing to learn that, after all that we know now, many mental health professionals still deny some of the research around trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder,” Mansoor said. “This showed me there’s a huge gap in research for childhood trauma because it was denied for so long.”
Vargas said trauma is something many behavioral health professionals struggle with due to a lack of training, which leads many, like him, to seek trauma-specific programs to build that expertise. A Mexico native who joined GCU a year ago, Vargas has been trained by the Green Cross Academy of Traumatology to be deployed to scenes where trained counselors can assist victims through traumatic experiences.
For his presentation today, Vargas also plans to address how faith-based communities can help sheltering young people from abuse and provide an overview of brain responses and emotional and physiological reactions to abuse. His overall focus is to remind workshop participants to remain focused on the short- and long-term needs of clients.
“Just because you have a doctorate in counseling doesn’t mean you can treat trauma,” Vargas said. “Nothing gets healed if we just ignore their problem. It sticks with them and leads to behavioral problems later in life.”
Contact Michael Ferraresi at 602-639-7030 or [email protected].