Professor Tonia Nicholls

The importance of Trauma Informed Practice in forensic and correctional contexts

Trauma is defined as an experience that overwhelms an individual’s capacity to cope. Individuals with mental health and behavioural challenges, including criminal offending and violence, report adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and victimization across the lifespan at significantly higher rates, and often of a unique nature, when compared to the general population.

Tonia Nicholls

Research further demonstrates that these experiences have lasting effects for virtually every aspect of an individual’s health and well-being (including mental illness, sexually transmitted diseases, heart disease, cancer, suicide, criminal offending). Simultaneously, the risk assessment (SAVRY; START; SAPROF; START:AV) and offender treatment literatures have evolved, and experts are increasingly advocating against punitive approaches and promoting rehabilitative and strengths-based interventions in forensic and correctional contexts (Barnao, Ward, & Roberston, 2016; Dvoskin et al., 2009, 2022; Nicholls & Goossens, 2017; Nicholls et al., 2019).

The implication is that forensic and correctional treatment providers should be integrating trauma informed practices (TIP). A central aspect of this vision is to shift the focus from “What is wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”. The talk will focus on some practical strategies for implementing trauma informed practices with behavioural health populations.


Dr. Tonia Nicholls is a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, Canada and Distinguished Scientist with BC Mental Health & Substance Use Services.

Professor Nicholls is particularly interested in the assessment and treatment of violence and criminality and the development and implementation of evidence-informed services. To that end, she has published several manuals to support the translation of research into practice and has actively engaged in large-scale implementations and evaluations. These include measures to inform: violence risk assessments and mental health screening in correctional settings (Jail Screening Assessment Tool (JSAT), Nicholls et al., 2005), broad-scale mental health assessments and treatment planning for diverse mentally ill and justice-involved populations for adults (Short-Term Assessment of Risk and Treatability, Webster et al., 2004, 2009) and adolescents (START: Adolescent version), Viljoen, Nicholls et al., 2014) and service planning for women with abusive (ex-) intimate partners (Decision-making In Abusive Relationships Interview (DIARI), Nicholls, Hilterman, & Goossens, 2016).

She has published >100 journal articles as well as many chapters, manuals and books. She has received several notable awards including the American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions, the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) President’s New Researcher Award and the CPA Criminal Justice Section significant contribution award. She currently holds a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Foundation award (> $2 million CDN) to fund research relevant to victimization, crime and violence among mentally ill and marginalized populations. She is president-elect of the International Association of Forensic Mental Health Services. Tonia maintains work life balance through hiking, biking and running and entertaining and travel with friends and family. Fun fact: She is a mom of three (two daughters and a son-in-law) she and her hubby are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary and they are especially excited to be newly minted grandparents!