NCU Alumni of the Year
Helps Trauma Victims Rebuild Lives
"Every time I help someone with their trauma journey, I know I am also helping myself a little bit more," Dr. Kirby Reutter tells us. Having experienced vicarious post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) himself as a child, NCU's 2018 Alumni of the Year Award winner knows firsthand the impact it can have on young people.
Determined to make a difference in the lives of these kids, Reutter, who earned his PhD in Psychology from the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences in 2012, has devoted his career to supporting children and teenaged victims of trauma, especially those affected by human trafficking. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than two thirds of children reported at least one traumatic event by age 16. Potentially traumatic events can include neglect, physical or sexual abuse or assault, natural disasters, war, the dramatic or sudden loss of a loved one or other troubling situations.
Reutter developed his own PTSD symptoms growing up with a father who served his country in Vietnam. "My dad went to war before he was an adult and came back with his own symptoms before anyone had even heard the term PTSD," he says. "It wasn't until I was a master's student earning my degree in clinical psychology that I even recognized that I had symptoms myself."
By this time, Reutter was already a father and husband to a young woman he met while teaching Spanish and serving as a translator in Mexico. His wife had experienced her own traumatic situation as a young girl growing up in an impoverished family in Mexico. While he finished his master's degree in Vermont and started his NCU doctoral program in psychology, the young couple ran the girl's dorm at a private college and volunteered for therapeutic foster care. Reutter also worked with teenage sex offenders. It was during this time that Reutter says he gained his best exposure to psychology.
From there, the family moved to Ohio and to Reuter's first job in the mental health field at a residential treatment facility across the Indiana border.
"When someone has been traumatized, their lives have been completely shattered, and my job is to help them pick up the pieces and put them back together."
—Dr. Kirby Reutter
"Most of the kids there were on probation or removed from the home because of abuse and neglect," Reutter recalls. "We dealt with every aspect of abuse – physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, substance – basically whatever confronted these kids. That's how I got started with trauma treatment, and that is still my passion now."
Today Reutter is a licensed mental health and substance abuse counselor in Indiana and a licensed psychologist in Ohio and Texas, where he now resides. Tapping the skills and techniques he learned at NCU, he frequently uses technology to work online with the clients he serves, including those at a residential facility for traumatized youth in Mexico.
One of Reutter's passions is working to combat human trafficking. According to the International Labour Organization, there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally – 25 percent of whom are children – who are forced to engage in commercial sex or to provide labor or services against their will.
In a Tedx Talk he delivered, Reutter describes the impact of human trafficking on young brains, but also offers hope for victims. "All four systems of the brain – the survival, emotional, attachment and thinking regions – are significantly impacted," he explains. "However, the brain is not set in stone, and when provided with the right conditions, sometimes victims can experience posttraumatic growth and gain insights from the trauma they could not have learned otherwise."
In other words, it's possible that lives can be transformed in a positive direction despite the horrific things victims experience. Reutter believes that spiritual coping, what he defines as awareness of a higher power, can assist in the healing process. Spiritual coping was the topic of his NCU doctoral dissertation and is something Reutter uses in his own life.
"I've found that people who are aware of a higher power are also aware of dynamics such as redemption and transformation," he says. "I don't think I'd be able to do the work I do without having some kind of spiritual understanding of life. And while I'm careful not to impose my beliefs on anyone else, I try to help clients recognize what spiritual coping mechanisms they already have and tap into that."
"I try to help clients recognize what spiritual coping mechanisms they already have and tap into that."
—Dr. Kirby Reutter
In addition to his work with children and teens, Reutter conducts professional trainings across the country on how to treat trauma symptoms. He was recently enlisted to assist the U.S. military with a series of training events for mental health professionals that work with veteran's suffering from PTSD and their families.
As if his work with clients is not enough, Reutter is also hard at work on a new self-help workbook for individuals who suffer from trauma and PTSD symptoms. The book, which will be published by New Harbinger in 2019, can be used by people who are not in therapy or as a therapy supplement if they are working with a counselor.
"When someone has been traumatized, their lives have been completely shattered, and my job is to help them pick up the pieces and put them back together," says Reutter. "The most rewarding part is when we are able to reassemble the pieces into an absolutely beautiful mosaic, something that is even more beautiful than what was there before."