Aetna Tests Trauma-Based Counseling Services for Behavioral Health Workers

The pandemic has increased the prevalence of trauma-causing stressors. But even before COVID-19, trauma was an everyday reality for many people — including the behavioral health providers who treat traumatized individuals.

An estimated 10 million children each year experience trauma, and various studies have correlated childhood trauma with becoming part of the Medicaid population in adulthood.

“Along with poverty comes a lot of adverse … life experiences for both children and adults,” Christie Hahn, a licensed clinical social worker and population health manager for Aetna Better Health, told Behavioral Health Business. “Just by nature of … the Medicaid population, you’re looking at increased risk of trauma in those individuals’ lives.”


To meet the behavioral health needs of those individuals, Aetna Better Health has created a special program. It’s aimed at helping behavioral health clinicians better serve Medicaid populations, while protecting themselves from the burnout and secondary trauma that often come with doing so.

One of the nation’s largest health insurance agencies, Aetna is owned by CVS Health (NYSE: CVS). Meanwhile, Aetna Better Health is a division of Aetna that oversees the insurance giant’s Medicaid managed care business.

In February, Aetna Better Health launched the Trauma Informed Care Center of Excellence in an effort to help behavioral health workers better handle the rigors of their job. Currently, two such centers exist — one in Oklahoma and one in California. Plus, Aetna is planning to roll out another two locations in additional states soon.


The centers aim to coach community partners to address secondary trauma in the workforce and take care of those who take care of others. They offer services like coaching to help clinicians better understand the effects of secondary trauma in the workplace. Additionally, the centers have a learning collaborative, a guide for trauma-informed care and a slew of experts to support ongoing and sustained growth.

Secondary trauma poses significant challenges for behavioral health workers. Studies have shown that between 6% and 26% of therapists are at risk of developing secondary trauma — and that percentage is even higher for child welfare workers, at 50%.

For the first phase of the trauma-informed care center initiative, Aetna Better Health is working with the Hope Research Center at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa and the Oklahoma City-based Sunbeam Family Services, the state’s oldest social services agency. Aetna is also partnering with Hillsides, a Pasadena, California youth and family services organization serving the Los Angeles area.

Sunbeam and Hillside workers are receiving services through trauma-informed care centers in each respective locality.

Services delivered through the centers are based on “the science of hope,” which asserts that hope is the most predictive indicator of well-being in a person’s life.

The science of hope concept was created by Chan Hellman, the director of the Hope Research Center. The center — which was formally established in 2018 — has conducted numerous studies based on the concept, which has appeared in more than two dozen peer-reviewed academic journals. Eventually, the center’s work caught the attention of Aetna Better Health. 

“What we learned when we talked more and more with [Hellman] is that hope — and having high hope — can be a really good protective factor for trauma and for secondary traumatic stress,” Hahn said.

As part of the Trauma Informed Care Center of Excellence, Aetna and the Hope Research Center have collaborated to gather data on the effectiveness of the new program. Research from the studies will be used to help inform science-of-hope projects for other organizations.

In addition to Oklahoma and California, Aetna plans to expand the new trauma care center model to Ohio and Nevada in the months to come. Hahn said that the centers, if ultimately successful, will not only benefit clinicians and their patients, but also provider organizations when it comes to increasing productivity and reducing employee burnout and absenteeism.

“We do know that turnover is expensive,” she said. “But … as a result of creating a hope-centered, trauma-informed organizational culture, we expect to see that ultimately turnover is reduced, because people are feeling good about going into work each day [and] … because their hope is being nurtured.”

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