With all that is happening in our nation right now — the social disruption and losses resulting from COVID-19 as well as widespread protests that in some cases have wrought violence and destruction — recognizing the potential lifelong impact of trauma on people’s physical and mental health is critical.
That the month of May is recognized as National Trauma Awareness Month and June is National PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) Awareness Month is perhaps coincidental, but also shows an increasing awareness of trauma-related conditions.
Trauma — and more specifically PTSD — is often discussed within the context of military personnel because combat is rife with the types of events that might cause trauma for those involved. As a result, much of what we knew we learned by studying the impact of adverse or traumatic events on our nation’s armed forces and veterans.
But as our knowledge of trauma has continued to grow, we have learned some key facts that are essential for helping people who might be affected. Among the most interesting insights is that adverse events in childhood can increase an individual’s risk of developing PTSD and physical health problems as an adult.
Much of the new information we have about trauma and its impact comes from the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study, a landmark survey of 17,000 people conducted between 1995 and 1997. It remains one of the largest, most comprehensive studies of how adverse childhood events and trauma affect health and well-being later in life.
Examples of traumatic events are wide and varied and might include such things as traumatic brain injury, fractures and burns; depression, anxiety and suicide; unplanned early pregnancy and pregnancy complications; HIV and sexually transmitted disease; cancer and diabetes; alcohol and drug use; and fewer economic and educational opportunities as well as lower future income.
And a child does not have to be the victim of an event to be affected by it — a child whose parent is diagnosed with cancer and subsequently dies can indeed experience trauma.
The researchers found that two-thirds (more than 11,000) individuals in the initial study had experienced at least one trauma as a child, and 87% of those experienced more than one traumatic event. While nearly everyone will experience some sort of adverse event while under the age of 18, the ACE study found an increased vulnerability to trauma and more significant consequences later in life among those who are socially and economically challenged.
The ACE study also provided compelling information about how childhood experiences impact our health and well-being as an adult. For example, traumatic childhood events can inhibit resilience in later in life — that is, a person’s ability to bounce back from challenges or events of trauma as an adult.
In addition, as the number of adverse childhood events increases, so does a person’s risk for a variety of negative health consequences – including mental health challenges such as depression, suicide and PTSD, becoming violent or a victim of violence, and physical conditions including liver disease, smoking as an adult, impaired work performance and chronic lung disease.
Like other mental health conditions, trauma is best diagnosed by a trained professional — a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist — especially because symptoms can sometimes take years to show up or to recognize. But, also like other mental health conditions, trauma can be treated, often with a combination of therapy, support and medication.
Finally, I’ll end this column as I do many others, by reminding people that treatment for trauma, like any mental health condition, is available in your community, from Highland Rivers Health and many other community providers, and that there is no reason to wait to seek treatment. Trauma can happen to anyone, and receiving treatment can not only improve your mental health and resilience, but also have a positive effect on your physical health and well-being.
Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for mental health, addiction and intellectual developmental disabilities in a 12-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Whitfield and Murray counties.