The last few weeks have seen some groundbreaking moments with respect to mental health awareness. Prince William created a warm and open dialogue with the pop star, Lady Gaga, with regard to mental illness and the importance of seeking help. Similarly, over Easter, Prince Harry revealed that he had carried suppressed grief for decades as a result of the traumatic death of his mother, Princess Diana.
Many children have experienced some degree of trauma in their formative years (even in seemingly functional and emotionally intelligent families). However, when a child or adolescent is unable to have this trauma properly validated and therefore suppresses emotional pain or grief, mental illness is likely to manifest in one form or another. As identified by the late Swiss psychologist Alice Miller: "It is not trauma we suffer in childhood that makes us emotionally ill, but the inability to express the trauma."
Many young people gravely affected by years of suppressed trauma might not even recognise the symptoms until well into adulthood and learn to survive or "cope" by dissociating from their emotions or finding other (often self-destructive) ways to numb or block their feelings.
Nevertheless, the human body stores all trauma in the tissues and similarly the amygdala and hypocamus amass memories and associations with regard to past traumatic events. This can place enormous strain on ones mental and physical health. Recently in "Psychology Today", Dr. Susan Lachmann wrote: "When you've endured collective or individual trauma, your trust in how things are supposed to be is drastically altered. In turn, your sense of safety and connection to yourself and others is negatively impacted. You are bracing for the next impact, whether or not one will follow."
Some traumatic events (or a series of events) may even lead to PTSD. According to Dr. Shamini Jane one grave traumatic event in childhood can be as serious as three years in a combat zone. The recent breakthrough studies, together with the frank revelations of an increasing number of people in the public eye are paving the way for society as a whole to create conversations about the wider context of trauma and therefore, those hitherto overlooked, will be able to receive the help and treatment they need.
In the addiction/emotional health field it is now recognised that trauma can also have a "drip-feed" effect. For example, constant fighting in a household, regularly witnessing domestic violence or being repeatedly shamed or subjected to humiliation slowly eats away at one's true sense of self and furthermore can drastically heighten fight and flight responses, as well as impairing cognitive function. All of this can be utterly debilitating and cause chronic anxiety, depression or other symptoms of mental illness. Consequently, many young people self-medicate with powerful mind and mood altering substances (rather than asking for help) which can lead to addiction.
The good news is that people can heal from trauma. In recent times Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) has become popular with psychotherapists. Counselling and deep feeling work (allowing oneself to truly feel suppressed grief and mental/emotional pain) and mindfulness can be very effective. The most important thing however is to create a safe environment that gives sufferers a chance to have their voices heard and their emotional pain validated. Tremendous healing takes place when someone is allowed to share their experiences and know that, perhaps for the first time, they are being listened to without fear of being judged.
Christopher Dines' new book, The Kindness Habit: Transforming our Relationship to Addictive Behaviours, co-authored with Dr Barbara Mariposa is out now.