I had a reminder recently of the stigma facing those dealing with trauma related to childhood abuse. I have encountered this before of course, perhaps vicariously, during my 20 plus years in the trauma treatment trenches. As a psychologist specializing in treating trauma I am well aware that many people do not want to be reminded of the less than pleasant aspects of life. Even mentioning what I do for a living can get me interesting responses, or sometimes just shut down the conversation altogether.
Someone unfollowed me on Twitter, and wrote to inform me, because I was not a “positive psychologist”. This took me aback and I tried to understand what led to that impression. I looked through my most recent Twitter postings to try to see what they saw. I had been posting, as I always do, about the impact of trauma and had recently written an article about how childhood experiences are linked to adult problems: Childhood Wounds: Understanding Yourself in Context.
“You are only as sick as your secrets”. If the oft repeated 12 step slogan is true then our culture is indeed sick. The refusal to acknowledge the link between childhood trauma (big T and little t) and mental health issues of all sorts in adulthood seems to me to be a kind of cultural dissociation. We would rather blame the victim, or in family systems terms set up the “sick” one as an identified patient, who has bad brain chemistry or has come by their mental “illness” in any way other than as a result of their childhood experiences.
Denying the past dooms us to repeat it. Denying the link between childhood trauma and mental health disorders of many kinds leads to inadequate treatment of the put a band-aid on it sort, no treatment at all, and/or adults who are ill prepared to themselves provide good enough parenting (or protect their children from outside perpetrators). And thus the cycle continues.
The pervasiveness of childhood trauma and its long lasting impact is the big secret and survivors who try to talk about their experiences are shamed and stigmatized. We want to view you as other, an anomaly, not the understandable consequence of a sick society.
My Twitter experience felt very much like a reaction to my telling the truth about these issues our culture wants to disavow. If I as a professional am impacted, imagine how much more so this stigma impacts survivors, I was reminded. The silencing, minimizing and blaming that can occur when a survivor tries to tell their story is a whole other level of traumatization.
This experience reminded me that visibility and conversation about trauma-related topics is crucial. It is why I see blogging and using social media to be an important part of my work as a trauma therapist. By speaking out about trauma and its impact I hope to support those who must live with it and to educate those who do not yet understand.
What else can we do to combat trauma-related stigma?
-Stop blaming the victim. Speak up as an ally when you hear victim blaming conversations. Those who have been abused and need to get help for it are not the problem. Abuse and the systems that allow it to continue are.
-Understand that avoidance, denial, not talking about childhood trauma and abuse does not make it better. If a survivor could just think it away, they would have long ago.
– Realize that nature vs. nurture is a false dichotomy. Our environment (how we are nurtured) effects our brain chemistry. “Chemical imbalances” as the cause of psychological problems rarely exist in a vacuum.
Please do share your experiences with stigma related to trauma issues, or mental health in general, and how you combat and cope with this.
Kathleen Young, Psy.D.