Can Childhood Trauma Lead to Mental Illness? 

If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, PLEASE call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Our traumas are some of the most debilitating and painful experiences we’ll go through in our lives, and we can be totally destabilized and overpowered by them, especially if we don’t have the skills to be able to process them. When we experience trauma as children, we haven’t developed these very necessary skills, nor have we had the opportunity yet to gain clearer understanding of who we are as people and what our relationship to our emotions will be. Childhood trauma can leave us feeling terrified, confused and painfully overwhelmed. We often don’t feel able to confide in the adults in our lives, whether they’re a source of support for us or not. We internalize our trauma. We suppress it. We begin to self-identify with it and allow it to create our identities moving forward. We’re simply too young, and too emotionally inexperienced at our young age, to know how to cope with our traumatic experiences. Can experiencing trauma when we’re young lead to mental illness in our childhoods and/or later in life? 

When we’re not able to process our trauma, express and it and move through it in healthy ways, it can absolutely lead to the development of mental illness. As young people, we are most likely practicing the emotional patterns that can contribute to mental and emotional unwellness without even being aware that we are – resistance, avoidance, suppression, denial, secrecy. We feel ashamed of ourselves because of our trauma. We blame ourselves for it. We inflict more pain on ourselves, and we self-harm because we’re taking on the responsibility for it. We contemplate suicide because the pain feels unbearable.

On the other hand, if we have the support system around us that we need in order to make sense of our trauma, if we have people we trust that we can confide in that can help guide us through the healing process, we won’t necessarily develop any form of mental illness. We may very well be able to navigate our pain in healthy ways, even as children. Trauma can lead to mental illness, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. Each of our experiences with trauma and mental health are unique to us, relative to who we are, and totally subjective. As a culture, and within our families and communities, we want to start talking more about the impact of trauma on our mental and emotional health. We want to create safe spaces where children can be heard, supported, validated and believed. And we want to be more protective of our children so that we can prevent some of these debilitating forms of trauma from happening to them in the first place.   

Riverside Recovery is a drug and alcohol treatment center offering a full continuum of care for people suffering from addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. Call us today for more information: (800) 871-5440.