Tag Archives: Childhood Trauma And Mental Illness

Is Mental Illness Caused By Trauma?

Is Mental Illness Caused By Trauma?

Does Childhood Trauma Cause Mental Illness?

There exists a clear link between the experience of childhood trauma and the development of mental illness in later life ; in other words, the greater the experience of trauma during childhood, the more likely one will suffer from psychological difficulties in the future.

However, if we ask : ‘Is mental illness caused by trauma during childhood?‘ this is too complex a question to receive a simple answer. Whether or not it does so will depend upon numerous factors, the main ones of which are as follows :

  • the type of trauma (e.g. physical, sexual and emotional abuse)
  • the severity of the traumatic experience
  • whether the traumatic experience was a single event or was frequent / chronically ongoing (in general, chronically ongoing trauma is likely to damage psychologically the child more than ‘single event’ trauma)
  • the age / developmental stage of the child at the time of the traumatic event/s (in general, the younger the child at the time the trauma takes place, the more severe the adverse effects of the trauma on the child’s mental health are likely to be)
  • whether or not the harm inflicted upon the child was deliberatethe relationship to the child of the perpetrator of the harmful event/s (if the perpetrator is related to the child – e.g. one of the child’s parents – the more severe the psychological harm inflicted upon the child is likely to be),
  • the level of the child’s resilience
  • the level of psychological support the child receives to help him/her cope with / process the traumatic event/s
  • biological / genetic factors
  • societal / cultural factors
  • the child’s perception and interpretation of the potentially traumatic events

Is Mental Illness Caused By Trauma? 1

In conclusion, then, we can say that the degree to which an individual is adversely affected by traumatic childhood experiences will depend upon numerous, complex and interacting factors.


Factors That Help Make Children Resilient To The Effects Of Trauma :

Children react in different ways to traumatic experiences. Of course, this is partly due to genetic differences (some children are more genetically vulnerable to the effects of trauma than others).

However, the psychologist Perry, an expert in the area of childhood trauma, has identified six key strengths a child needs to possess to maximize his/her chances of coping with traumatic experiences successfully. The six strengths that Barry describes are as follows:







The role of the primary caretaker is, of course, vital in helping the child to develop each of these strengths. This is why a dysfunctional relationship with the primary caregiver can be so profoundly disruptive to a child’s psychological development.

Let’s look at each of the six key strengths in turn :

1) ATTACHMENT – as I state above, the quality of the bond a child forms with the primary caregiver (usually the mother) is crucial. A healthy bond will help ensure that the child is able to develop and maintain other supportive relationships in later life.

2) SELF-REGULATION – this refers to the ability to control feelings and emotions such as fear, anger and anxiety. The ability is NOT innate, but, rather, it is learned as the child gets older.

The provision of emotional support from the primary caregiver (e.g. soothing the child when s/he is frightened) for the child, especially in his/her earliest years, is vital if the child is to learn the skill of self-regulation successfully.

NB : Children who suffer very severe trauma sometimes go on to develop a condition known as borderline personality disorder (BPD), or other psychological disorders, in adulthood. Early therapeutic intervention for those at risk is therefore of the utmost importance. However, always consult a relevant, experienced and well qualified professional when making decisions about therapy.

One of the hallmarks of BPD is an inability to control strong emotions. CLICK HERE to read my article on this.

3) AFFILIATION – this refers to the child being able, successfully, to integrate within groups. This is normally first learned within the family and, later, if all goes well, the child is able to comfortably fit in with other groups.

4) ATTUNEMENT – this refers to the skill of being sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. However, if the child is not properly cared for in early life, this ability may well be severely impaired.

Being attuned to the needs and feelings of others helps the child to affiliate (as described above in 3).

5) TOLERANCE – this refers to the child’s willingness to accept others who differ from him/herself. In a functional and healthy family, this can be learned by modelling behaviour on that of the parents/primary caregiver.

6) RESPECT – refers to valuing, and seeing the worth in, self and others. It has its foundations in the skills already described above.





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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Childhood Trauma: Its Relationship to Psychopathy.

Childhood Trauma And Psychopathy

What is the nature of the relationship between childhood trauma and psychopathy?

The term ‘psychopath’ is often used by the tabloid press. In fact, the diagnosis of ‘psychopath’ is no longer given – instead, the term ‘anti-social personality disorder’ is generally used.

When the word ‘psychopath’ is employed by the press, it tends to be used for its ‘sensational’ value to refer to a cold-blooded killer who may (or may not) have a diagnosis of mental illness.

It is very important to point out, however, that it is extremely rare for a person who is suffering from mental illness to commit a murder; someone suffering from very acute paranoid schizophrenia may have a delusional belief that others are a great danger to him/her (this might involve, say, terryfying hallucinations) and kill in response to that – I repeat, though, such events are very rare indeed: mentally ill people are far more likely to be a threat to themselves than to others (eg through self-harming, substance abuse or suicidal behaviours).

The word psychopath actually derives from Greek:

psych = mind

pathos = suffering

Someone who is a ‘psychopath’ (ie has been diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder) needs to fulfil the following criteria:

– inability to feel guilt or remorse
– lack of empathy
– shallow emotions
– inability to learn from experience in relation to dysfunctional behaviour

Often, psychopaths will possess considerable charisma, intelligence and charm; however, they will also be dishonest, manipulative and bullying, prepared to employ violence in order to achieve their aims.

As ‘psychopaths’ reach middle-age, fewer and fewer of them remain at large in society due to the fact that by this time they are normally incarcerated or dead from causes such as suicide, drug overdose or violent incidents (possibly by provoking a ‘fellow psychopath’ to murder them). However, it has also been suggested that some possess the skills necessary to integrate themselves into society (mainly by having decision making skills which enable this and operating in an context suited to their abilities, for example where cold judgment and ruthlessness are an advantage) and become very, even exceptionally, successful; perhaps it comes as little surprise, then, that they are thought to tend to be statistically over-represented in, for example, politics and in CEO roles (think Monty Burns from The Simpsons, though I’m aware he’s not real. Obviously.).


Research shows that ‘psychopaths’ tend to be a product of ENVIRONMENT rather than nature – ie they are MADE rather than born. They also tend to have suffered horrendous childhoods either at the hands of their own parent/s or those who were supposed to have been caring for them – perhaps suffering extreme violence or neglect.

Post-mortem studies have revealed that they frequently have underdeveloped regions of the brain responsible for the governing of emotions; IT APPEARS THAT THE SEVERE MALTREATMENT THAT THEY RECEIVED AS CHILDREN IS THE UNDERLYING CAUSE OF THE PHYSICAL UNDERDEVELOPMENT OF THESE VITAL BRAIN REGIONS. It is thought that these brain abnormalities lead to a propensity in the individual to SEEK OUT RISK, DANGER and similar STIMULATION (including violence).


Whilst there are those who consider the condition to be untreatable, many others, who are professionally involved in its study, are more optimistic. Indeed, some treatment communities have been set up to help those affected by the condition take responsibility for their actions and face up to the harm they have caused. Research is ongoing in order to assess to what degree intervention by mental health services can be effective.

David Hosier, BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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