The National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health declares the first full week in May as National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. This week is dedicated to increasing public awareness about the importance of being aware of children’s mental health and emphasizing community, family, and youth involvement in the children’s mental health movement.
A traumatizing experience can happen to an individual at any age. Whatever the cause, a traumatic event has a devastating impact on physical, emotional and mental well-being. Communities can be traumatized, as well.
Some of the most common causes of trauma include:
• Living under threat
• Childhood sexual, physical or emotional abuse or neglect
• Experiencing violence
• Being bullied
• Living through a natural disaster, war or other form of upheaval
• Serving in combat
• Witnessing something terrible happen to another person or group of people
The good news is that the invisible wounds caused by traumatic experiences can heal. With the proper treatment, support and self-care, recovery is possible for everyone.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that one in four children in the United States experiences “at least one potentially traumatic event before the age of 16”, and every year, one in five American adolescents engages in problematic use of illicit drugs or alcohol. In April 2012, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that drug overdose deaths among 15- to 19-year-olds is steadily increasing.
Most people think that “trauma” refers to physical trauma that occurs as a result of a car accident or assault. But it’s much more than that. Trauma includes interpersonal violence just as abuse and bullying; social violence such as war and terrorism; natural disasters and accidents; serving in combat; stressors such as poverty and humiliation; and childhood trauma, which includes physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and difficult family relationships.
Trauma takes a huge toll on lives and health. Trauma is the leading cause of the death of children in this country. The effect of trauma on productive life years lost exceeds that of any other disease. The economic cost of 50 million injuries in the year 2000, alone, was $406 billion. This includes estimates of $80 billion in medical care costs, and $326 billion in productivity losses. And the predicted cost to the health care system from interpersonal violence and abuse ranges between $333 billion and $750 billion annually, or nearly 17 to 37.5 percent of total health care expenditures.
As a society, we are just beginning to deal with trauma—bringing it out of the shadows, finding new ways of healing its wounds, and casting out the shame that prevents trauma survivors from seeking help.
When children or adults respond to traumas with fear, horror and/or helplessness, the extreme stress is toxic to their brains and bodies, and overwhelms their ability to cope. While many people who experience a traumatic event are able to move on with their lives without lasting negative effects, others may have more difficulty managing their responses to trauma.
Unresolved trauma can manifest in many ways, including anxiety disorders, panic attacks, intrusive memories (flashbacks), obsessive-compulsive behaviors, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, addictions, self-injury and a variety of physical symptoms.
Trauma increases health-risky behaviors such as overeating, smoking, drinking and risky sex. Trauma survivors can become perpetrators themselves. Unaddressed trauma can significantly increase the risk of mental and substance use disorders, suicide, chronic physical ailments, as well as premature death.
Until recently, trauma survivors were largely unrecognized by the formal treatment system. The costs of trauma and its aftermath to victims and society were not well documented. Inadvertently, treatment systems may have frequently re-traumatized individuals and failed to understand the impact of traumatic experiences on general and mental health.
Today, the causes of trauma—sexual abuse, violence in families and neighborhoods, and the impact of war, for example—are matters of public concern. But more needs to be done to recognize the devastating impact of trauma and successful treatment. Many trauma survivors have formed self-help groups to heal together. Researchers have learned how trauma changes the brain and alters behavior. A movement for trauma-informed care has emerged to ensure that trauma is recognized and treated and that survivors are not re-victimized when they seek care.
It is critical that these sorts strengthened and we heal the invisible wounds of trauma. They are crucial to promoting the healthy development of children and healthy behaviors in families, schools and communities that reduce the likelihood of trauma.
This column is not is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical or psychological advice or treatment.