This article discusses the correlation between childhood trauma and the negative-long term consequences stemming from early trauma and how it can affect anyone despite age, sex, race, etc. It also includes an accurate definition of trauma and what it entails. Childhood trauma has major affects that can be realized and experienced throughout a lifetime. Changes in the brain and other bodily functions are also affected by adverse childhood experiences. This article examines how early trauma is associated with physical, mental and emotional symptoms that can endure into adulthood. A rebuttal is also included to present an opposing perspective. The long-term outcomes from trauma like substance abuse, psychiatric issues, incarceration are also mentioned. The truth and harsh reality of mental health issues are introduced and how early stress or trauma is at the heart of it.
Are Later Mental Health Issues Related to Childhood Trauma?
When I was about eight years old, I experienced my older brother getting hit by a car. If I hadn’t turned onto the sidewalk when I did, I too would’ve been under that car. Now does this experience still affect me today? Sure, I can still remember the incident like it was yesterday. I just froze in place listening to him scream and my parents running passed me to help him. Luckily, my brother healed up just fine and everything went back to normal after about a month or two. Since then, I’ve grown and learned to cope with it over the years and thankfully it hasn’t negatively impacted my life. But if I were to ask my parents what they would change about that day, they probably would say that they would keep us inside the house to prevent it from happening. Naturally, parents want to protect their children from pain and danger, but the truth is, trauma does not discriminate. It can affect anyone despite their age, race, sex, or belief. It may also have lasting effects that can persist into adulthood.
What is Trauma?
When I hear the word trauma I immediately think of something drastic, something extreme or dramatic that happens. Kind of like my experience with my brother and his accident. Usually it has to do with a life changing experience that is typically unexpected or too extreme for the average person to handle. Trauma can include abuse, violence, maltreatment, neglect, loss, accidents, disasters, war, and other emotionally harmful experiences. (Dye, 2018) According to the American Psychiatric Association, they explain trauma as “…a perceived experience that threatens injury, death, or physical integrity and causes feelings of fear, terror, and helplessness.” (as cited in Dye, 2018) Considering that these emotions usually come from unintended, unfortunate circumstances, people all around the world are experiencing trauma and its repercussions. More than half of Americans between 18 and 55 reported experiencing at least one earlier traumatic life event. (Maschi, Baer, Morrissey, Moreno, 2012) According to another source, about 20% of individuals exposed to a traumatic event will develop psychiatric morbidity and children may be at an even higher risk. (Dar, 2015)
Effects on Later Mental Health
The argument of whether or not there’s a result that follows childhood trauma is pretty straight forward. I’ve already assumed that when a baby or a child experiences something traumatic, the possibility that it may affect that child in one way or another is very high. For example, if a child witnesses the murder of a parent or survives a horrific car accident, scenes and emotions may play back and affect that child for an extended period of time. Dye confirms this when she added, “Exposure to childhood trauma has been linked to childhood and adult psychopathology, including attention deficit and hyperactive disorder (ADHD), depression and anxiety, personality disorders, a profound effect of cognitive, social, and emotional competencies, and an increased risk for chronic disease.” She continues to explain the impact of trauma exposure and how childhood trauma can disrupt multiple aspects of their lives including: life-long medical and psychological deficiencies, developmental process of aging, and can lead to exaggerated emotional distress and helplessness. (Dye., 2018)
Trauma has to have its ramifications; traumatic experiences are way too complicated for children and their immature brains, even adults struggle to comprehend traumatic experiences. Some results from trauma include “continued revictimization, psychiatric disorders, cognitive impairment, maladaptive stress responses, physical disabilities, and even early death.” Mentioned in the same article, its clarified how trauma and its effects depend on the intensity, duration, and chronicity of the event and used war and imprisonment as an example. The longer you’re exposed to war, the likelihood of posttraumatic stress symptoms is prolonged and may extend into advanced years. (Maschi et al., 2012)
How it affects Mental Health
I’ve always thought that people with a troubled childhood would of course participate in bad behavior because, well, that’s what’s expected. Grow up around violence, you may become a violent person. But apparently, there’s a deeper explanation. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, they’ve found that there was a dose-response relationship between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and health outcomes. (as cited in Harris., 2015) ACE includes different types of trauma that we previously mentioned. In Harris’ lecture, she explains how a case study was performed on 17,500 adults and their exposure to ACE, the higher the ACE score was, the worse the health outcomes. Allegedly, 67% of all participants had at least one traumatic experience and 12.6% had four or more traumatic experiences. A person with an ACE score of four or more had a significant higher risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and Hepatitis. Depression was four and a half times more than that of someone with a score of zero. “A person with a score of seven or more had triple the lifetime risk of lung cancer and tree and a half times the risk of ischemic heart disease,” (Harris, 2015) which is the leading killer in the U.S. With these facts in mind, our health administration culture needs to alter and adjust the way we look and care for our mentally sick patients.
Now that we have a pretty good understanding that trauma has a notable consequence, how exactly does it affect mental health? Trauma has shown to alter changes in some brain circuits and hormonal systems that regulate stress. Some of these changes in the brain can affect the nucleus accumbens, (pleasure and reward system) and the HPA axis. (Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal). (Harris. 2015) This basically is the brain and body’s stress response system that governs fight-or-flight response. (Dye, 2018) Let’s say you come face to face with a wolf. Your hypothalamus sends a message to the pituitary, which then forwards that message to your adrenal gland telling it to release stress hormones and adrenaline triggering the fight-or-flight response. Pupils dilate and heart beats faster. You can either stay and fight the wolf or run from it. Now if that wolf were to come home every day, what’s meant to be an adaptive, life-saving mechanism becomes maladaptive and destructive. Children aren’t meant to experience repeated stress activation because they’re still growing and developing. When this occurs, brain structure and function are affected along with the immune system, hormonal system, and even DNA. (Harris, 2015)
There have been many cases and research over the years regarding the correlation between early trauma and later mental health. I’ve come to realize that there really isn’t an opposition on whether childhood trauma leads to mental issues in the future. Dr Ross Collin commented on this exact subject when he stated, “the bulk of mental health problems around the world stem from some sort of early trauma, the whole mental health field.” (as cited in Corina Rachel., 2012) although there hasn’t been many cases of opposition on this matter, it’s believed that many clinics fail to obtain data related to childhood abuse because they simply don’t ask. A fear of offending, stressing, traumatizing and inducing false memories tend to restrict them from asking in the first place. (Dovran et al., 2015) It may seem a bit odd when you think about going contrary to what’s already scientifically proven but there are some people out there who still do. Not getting vaccinated is an example of a modern approach to opposing scientific evidence.
In conclusion, the science is clear, early childhood trauma is closely related to mental health issues that persist into adulthood. The health issues and results of childhood trauma vary anywhere from PTSD, neurological and physical dysfunction, criminal misconduct or behavior, struggling personal relationships and many more. Children are far too sensitive for early trauma and are more susceptible to later health issues if not screened and assisted properly. We’ve learned that the reach of trauma and its consequences are boundless and does not discriminate. We can and we need to do better in treating mental health patients because we now know the underlying issues rather than proclaiming that someone has issues. Once we begin to acknowledge this fact to be a worldwide health issue, our efforts can begin to show a realistic change in catching and preventing further damage caused by early trauma. We all know at least one person who suffered or suffers from some kind of trauma and that’s the truth of it all, that an issue this powerful can touch all of us.