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Are we asking the wrong questions about mental ill-health

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

There has been much talk in the press, in the past year especially, about the rise in mental illness in the young. There has been talk about how this rise has coincided with the rise of social media and screen use, and the two seem to have been linked together.

In August last year, Tom Chivers made the point in the New Scientist, that actually there is no evidence to support that there is a direct link between self-harm and social media, and went on to make the point that alcohol and smoking cannabis has reduced during that same period of time, yet no-one is drawing the conclusion that reduction in substance use is because of a rise in social media / screen use.

Because the problem is more complex than that – and yet it is actually more simple at the same time. The New Scientist makes the point at the end of its short article by saying “exactly what is causing this unhappiness is not clear”.

What exactly is causing this unhappiness is, in fact, clear to us, and it is due to an ocean of misunderstanding around the topic of trauma. Because underneath almost all mental ill-health, is unresolved trauma.

When we think of trauma, most of us think of war veterans coming home and not being able to integrate into normal life again. Or we think of someone being raped, or being in a terrorist attack. And this is indeed trauma, it is indeed traumatic. And often people suffer for some time afterwards as a result, especially if they don’t seek professional help. This type of trauma, the more widely known trauma, we call “Big T trauma”; it is technically defined as something happening to us whereby we feel that our physical life is in danger.

Some of our clients have Big T trauma, sure. But what we are finding, is that almost all of our clients have another type of trauma. It is called Developmental Trauma, or little t trauma. And it happens during the first 18 years of our lives. During our childhoods. During our developmental years. And herein lies the ocean of misunderstanding to which I referred above.

There is a notion that “trauma happens to other people”. This notion is incorrect. We actually all have some trauma, some developmental trauma. Some of us have more of it than others. But we all have some.

Bessel van der Kolk, one of the leading trauma researchers in the world, in his book “The body Keeps the Score”, calls developmental trauma an “hidden epidemic”. And he is right, it is hidden, and it is an epidemic. Bessel talks about children who have been physically, sexually and emotionally abused. And he puts them on the map. Thank you Bessel.

We can probably all – however horrid it might sound – imagine a child who has been physically, sexually and emotionally abused. We can picture them, perhaps curled in on themselves, pale, thin – “traumatised”. They might have been born to parents who are actively using addicts or alcoholics. They might have been beaten, sworn at, shouted at daily, their basic needs not even being met. As we think more about these poor children we can understand that they would have trauma, developmental trauma, the little t trauma, and our hearts might bleed for them.

But those people self-harming in the reported statistics aren’t necessarily born into families with that level of dysfunction.

So what is going on?

There is a gaping hole in the true understanding of emotional abuse and neglect, that’s what’s going on.

For decades, for generations, we have been emotionally abused and neglected by our parents, without anyone realising that it is happening.

No parent sets out to emotionally abuse and neglect their child, do they. Well, perhaps a teeny 0.01%. Every parent I have ever met sincerely believes that how they raise their children is absolutely the best for their child. And they most likely believe that how they were raised by their parents was also from a place of putting the children first. No parent is perfect – lord forbid, that would bring its own set of problems for a child. But let’s just look at this notion of emotional abuse and neglect so we can see where we ourselves might have missed out, so that we can see where our own developmental trauma might lie.

To keep it simple, I look at it in terms of the emotional needs of a child – any child. One of my trainers, Laurel Parnell, encapsulates this need-bank in terms of 4Ss. These 4Ss are Seen, Soothed, Safe and Secure. In order for a child to emerge as an adult with a minimum amount of developmental trauma, they need to have felt those 4Ss, enough of the time, during their childhoods.

Let’s think back to our own childhood. Did we receive those 4 Ss enough of the time?

Did we feel Seen by our parents? By seen, I mean really connected with for who we were as an individual, rather than just a family member, or an offspring; did we have a parent who would take the time to get to know us, to hear our opinion, to value to it, to value us.

Were we Soothed when we felt upset? Did we have a parent who would scoop us up in their arms when we felt sad or emotional, embrace us, rock us, and soothe us until our upset subsided. Or were we told to get on with it and stop crying? Big girls don’t cry, boys don’t cry.

Did we feel emotionally Safe to go to our parents with anything that was going on in our lives that felt difficult. If we tried to do that, did they listen and See us? And hear us? Or did we receive a message – said or unsaid – that we just needed to get on with it alone. Generally, if we felt Seen and Soothed we are going to feel emotionally safe.

Did we feel Secure. Did we have a stable home that felt like somewhere we could go back to that felt like home, that we could share with our friends, where we had a sense of security.

Most of us, when we take an honest look at the above, will answer “No, I did not”.

If we didn’t feel enough of those 4Ss, enough of the time, then we are going to have some developmental trauma.

So how does this manifest in our daily lives as we grow up? What does it look like?

Depending on our personalities, our character make-up, and the type or frequency of the trauma, there are various ways this developmental trauma manifests in us. Addictions, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, smoking, antisocial behaviour, numbness, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and of course suicide itself, are some of these ways.

All of these are signs of developmental trauma. Because trauma doesn’t just come from the horrid things that happen to us, it also comes from the loving things that didn’t happen for us.

But we all love our children, right? Of course we do. And we were loved by our parents before us too. All parents love their children. But the missing piece is that we don’t all know how to be unconditionally loving towards our children, because the reality is, we don’t fully understand exactly what all children need.

Because is not just about love. It is also about respect. And the moment we do not feel Seen, Soothed, Safe or Secure, enough of the time, we are not being respected for the extraordinary human being that we are, in all of its wholeness. A lack of that respect and unconditional love, very sadly, results in the child feeling emotionally abused and / or neglected.

We need to be looking at those teenagers and young adults in those frightening statistics that we hear on the news – and we also need to be looking at the children and young adults who don’t make those statistics. And instead of asking the question “What is wrong with this person”, we need to be asking the question “what happened to this person”.

Because the answer lies somewhere in those 4Ss - or lack thereof. And once we know that, we can help them to heal.

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