The Impact of Trauma on Mental Health

Bad things happen.  We all know this because we all experience life.  But what happens when they occur in our childhood?  When they aren’t just bad, but traumatic?  When they shake us to our core and make us question the world we live in?  Those bad things are called trauma, and trauma can have an immense and lasting impact on our mental health.

Childhood should be filled with joy.  As children grow, we do our best to protect children from physical and emotional pain, so they may experience the joyful moments.  In my role as a therapist at Park Center, I know all too well the impact of what happens when our efforts to protect our children are not successful – when our children experience physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and when their eyes have seen things they should never have seen, and their ears have heard words they should never have heard.  The individuals who work with children see the outcome of this lifestyle in the child who mimics the experience by using words that shock us and doing behaviors that concern us.  These behaviors are signs of exposure to trauma, and it is our duty, as adults, to take notice and work to help them find healing.

Children who experience negative life events are more likely to struggle with mental health throughout their lives.  They are more likely to do poorly in school, suffer from depression and/or anxiety, display aggressive or disruptive behaviors, and struggle with suicidal thinking and substance abuse.  And it doesn’t stop in childhood.  Adults who experience trauma also struggle with the impact it has on their mental health.

Many people have heard of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.  PTSD is characterized by re-experiencing the trauma, be it through flashbacks, nightmares, mood swings, avoidance and negative views of themselves and the world.  While PTSD is a possible outcome of trauma, not everyone who experiences trauma will develop these symptoms.   A lot of how we respond to trauma has to do with what our life was like before the trauma occurred.   For instance, did we grow up feeling safe and secure in the world?  Did we trust adults to protect and take care of us?  Also, do we have a support system in place to help us through the trauma?  These factors are what lead to resiliency.  Merriam-Webster defines resiliency as “the capacity to recovery quickly from difficulties”; or “toughness”.

So what do we do when those resiliency factors are not present?  There is a famous study that was conducted in the 90’s called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study).  The study identified the correlation between adverse childhood experience (abuse, neglect and other forms of trauma) and the health and wellbeing of adults.  The results of this study were staggering.  Not only did the individuals who experienced trauma in their childhood go on to experience more issues with their social and emotional wellbeing, they also experienced higher rates of physical illnesses and were more likely to adopt high risk behaviors such as abusing drugs and alcohol and even die earlier deaths.

At first glance, the results of the study may sound discouraging; however, there is a silver lining.  Trauma is treatable.  As a mental health provider, I have been privileged to walk alongside individuals who courageously took steps to move toward seeing themselves as survivors.    In 2015, Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child released a study saying, “Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult”.  I challenge you to be that adult to one child in your life.  To do for one what you wish you could do for all.

We all have a role in helping children develop into healthy adults.  Each of us can play a part by assisting them in finding safety, security and stability, seeing they have value, and again believing in the goodness of others.

Written by: Laura Swanson, LMHC, CSAYC, manager of outpatient services at Park Center in Fort Wayne, IN.  Laura is a Certified Sexually Abusive Youth Clinician and is also certified in Trauma Focused-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT).    Individuals who would like more information about the services offered by Park Center can contact 260-481-2700. 

Original Artwork from SHINE 2017
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