Unpacking Trauma and Mental Health
As human beings, we go through life experiencing everything as a blur. One of the fascinating parts of humanity is looking into how certain negative and traumatic experiences can impact someone’s health and their lives without their direct knowledge.
Although trauma is a nuanced and complicated word that can entail a wide range of definitions, there are three main types of trauma. Acute trauma refers to a single traumatic event that can be specifically defined with a beginning, middle and end. This can include assault or a car accident.
Chronic trauma is repeated exposure to multiple traumatic incidents, usually prolonged and ongoing abuse, for example, intimate partner violence or bullying.
Finally, complex trauma, which may be the most severe, refers to varied and multiple traumatic events with long-term emotional and physical symptoms. This can include prolonged neglect or experiencing homelessness.
The way everyone experiences trauma is highly varied and can span from no substantial impact to having a severe effect on someone’s well-being.
“The thing about trauma is it’s quite complex, so it really depends on how the person experiences it,” Kimberly Jewers-Dailley, contract teaching faculty in the department of social work, and registered psychotherapist, said.
“There is no set rule for how a person should react to a traumatic event… a traumatic event is an experience that should have never happened to anyone. The way that individuals or a community react to traumatic events can be completely different,” Abdelfettah Elkchirid, assistant professor in the faculty of social work, explained.
Generally, trauma has a negative impact that can incline someone to adverse health effects.
“Trauma can have different effects, it can predispose someone for immediate or long-term mental health difficulties,” Amar Ghelani, instructor in the faculty of social work, and registered social worker, said.
Despite the wide variety of impacts that trauma can have on someone who has experienced it, there is usually a change in the way one navigates through life and the quality of their life following trauma.
“There are times you don’t even want to get out of the house, there are times all you want to do is sleep because you don’t want to face the world…,” Magnus Mfoafo-M’Carthy, associate professor, at Laurier said. “It can be quite debilitating in the sense that you find yourself not able to engage in daily activities of living.”
The emotional challenges that can stem from trauma may cause someone to lose interest in their day-to-day life, including mental health and interest in academic work -two factors that are relevant and important for students.
“[Trauma] can cause sleep disturbances, nightmares, hyperreactivity, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts,” Ghelani said.
Furthermore, people can take up “unhealthy” coping mechanisms to endure the emotional turmoil that trauma has caused them and the toll it can take on mental health.
“Trauma affects our mental health in different ways; it changes the way we see life, and it sometimes forces us to [take up] unhealthy coping mechanisms,” Elkchirid said.
“It can make people want to do things that make them feel better in the short term, such as impulsive shopping or sexual behaviours, or substance use,” Ghelani said.
These maladaptive coping mechanisms, specifically substance use, are often viewed in a way that blames the person rather than considering what they have been through.
Jewers-Dailley explained that trauma-informed care, an approach that can be employed in therapy and treatment, takes away the blame aspect when helping those who have suffered through trauma.
“One of the staple phrases in trauma-informed care is viewing behaviour of others not as ‘what’s wrong with you?’ … [but] seeing the behaviour and saying, ‘what’s happened to you?’” She said.
Trauma, much like biological features and characteristics, can be passed down through generations, which is a term known as intergenerational trauma. This term can be conceptualized in many ways, but Ghelani referred to it as people “inheriting traumatic experiences” from their parents.
“Intergenerational trauma is the transmission of trauma across generations, we see this in groups who have experienced collective trauma,” Jewers-Dailley explained, referencing genocide and persecution as traumatic experiences that have happened to Indigenous Peoples and those who have been unjustly enslaved.
“What we see is that the effects of the trauma are passed down to the generations, as previous generations are affected,” Jewers-Dailley said.
This process can happen in a number of ways.
“[It can happen] through [people’s] parenting styles, and passing on their trauma to their children, it could be by telling their stories to their children, leading to children being negatively impacted by their trauma,” Elkchirid said.
Mfoafo-M’Carthy also used an example of groups who were marginalized and oppressed in the past.
“What happens is the impact of trauma on a first generation may impact the next generation… maybe the first generation that were abused, marginalized, oppressed etc. were not [displaying] the skills, the tools and the ability to deal with that trauma,” he said.
Certain groups may also still deal with experiences that caused trauma for their ancestors, such as racism or persecution for their identity.
The negative effects of trauma on mental well-being can be unintentionally ignored within communities that stray away from talking about mental health.
“In a lot of communities, when people realize that you have a mental illness, they tend to move away from you, because the illness is seen as a disability and there are negative connotations associated with it,” Mfoafo-M’Carthy explained.
He explained that stigma surrounding mental health and trauma can be a barrier to engaging people in a conversation about mental well-being.
Separate from the unfavourable effects of trauma, resilience and post-traumatic growth have both been documented as somewhat “positive” things that arise from traumatic experiences.
“For a small population, we see trauma actually having a positive effect on their life,’” Jewers-Dailley said, referring to post-traumatic growth.
“Some might say, ‘because of what I went through, I’m a better person for it, I’m a stronger person for it, I’m more committed to my faith, or I’m more committed to my family now, because of what happened,’” she said.
Similarly, resilience is known as adapting in the face of trauma or tragedy.
“The idea of resilience is building the inner strength to be able to cope, or to confront [trauma]… it’s really important to get knowledge and to get the necessary support, skills and the ability to be able to withstand things that come your way,” Mfoafo-M’Carthy said.
Elkchirid explained that this resilience is the capacity to face challenges and difficult situations.
Considering the wide range of reasons that trauma can occur, and the wide variety of ways that it can impact someone’s mental health, it is crucial to be able to recognize mental illness and how we can heal from it.
“It’s about time we start looking at mental illness as part of an individual’s health because if it affects the brain, that means it’s also part of the body,” Mfoafo-M’Carthy said.
Furthermore, there are a lot of unknowns relating to mental health that need to be addressed for the advancement of our community.
“It is important for us to fund more research on the effects of trauma, not only from one individual to their children but also the effect of trauma on communities,” Elkchirid said.
“Trauma affects us all and it is in our benefit as humans to try and understand its effects and deal with it and also try to prevent it from happening,” he said.
The shared sentiment among educators and experts is that mental health is an important aspect of community well-being, and people who have experienced trauma deserve to be cared for.
Caring for others who have undergone trauma that has significantly influenced their mental health is for the best of individuals in society on a micro level, and for the best of our community as a whole on a macro level.