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Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents Marks 20 Years of Helping Traumatized Children Heal

Allegheny General Hospital's Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents, the only center of its kind in the Pittsburgh region, is marking 20 years of helping children and families recover from traumatic or stressful life events.

Over the past 20 years, the Center for Traumatic Stress has helped more than 6,000 children and families coping with a wide variety of issues including domestic violence, community violence, sexual abuse, the death of a family member, natural disasters, neglect or bullying. Founded and directed by Anthony P. Mannarino, Ph.D., and Judith A. Cohen, M.D., the program focuses on alleviating serious symptoms of post-traumatic stress and promoting healthy coping responses.

The Center for Traumatic Stress is also a national and international leader in developing and researching evidence-based, trauma focused therapies for children and adolescents. Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) was developed and tested by Dr. Mannarino and Dr. Cohen at Allegheny General along with Esther Deblinger, Ph.D., of the New Jersey CARES Institute. The therapy is considered the model with the strongest evidence of helping children recover from traumatic life events.

TF-CBT is used by child mental health professionals throughout the state and nation, and around the world. It is used in residential treatment facilities throughout Pennsylvania and across the United States from Los Angeles County to Nevada to Arkansas. Worldwide it is used in low-resource countries such as Zambia and Cambodia, and highly developed countries such as Japan and New Zealand.

The Center has played critical roles in assisting disaster relief efforts around the country, including September 11, Hurricane Katrina and the crash of USAir Flight 427. The Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, International Society on Traumatic Stress Studies and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration all endorse TF-CBT as an effective treatment for child trauma.

In addition, in 2012 Drs. Mannarino and Cohen were awarded a four-year, $4 million grant to expand the use of TF-CBT to children of military families, children in foster care, and children who identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay or transsexual. All may be subject to unusual stress, trauma or bullying.

Many children exposed to traumatic events exhibit symptoms associated with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder such as disordered sleep patterns, nightmares, fear, and anxiety, as well as depression, behavior problems, or difficulties with learning and attention span.

“With TF-CBT, we take a simple, gentle approach to help children ‘make the unspeakable speakable,’” Dr. Cohen said. “We encourage children to talk about the traumatic events that have affected them, focusing on exposure to the event, not avoidance. They may create a narrative of the trauma, in the form of a small book, poetry, or art work. When they finish retelling the story, they realize it wasn’t so scary to tell.”

“But we also strike a balance between talking about the event and moving forward,” Dr. Mannarino added. “For children who are overwhelmed with anxiety, for example, we teach them relaxation skills such as visualization and deep breathing.”

Parents or other caretakers are deeply involved in TF-CBT. In joint therapy sessions, children share their story of the trauma with their parent, opening the way to an ongoing dialogue. Parents also learn how to help children learn coping skills, and how to deal with immediate concerns such as sleep problems or fighting.

To make a referral, an appointment, or to obtain more information, contact the Center's Intake Evaluator at (412) 330-4328.

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