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Why We Should All Care About Psychological Trauma

Getting real about the root cause of society's many problems.

I have a client, “Rozlyn,” who is attempting to leave an abusive marriage. Her husband, “Bill,” is a combat veteran who served in Desert Storm. Before the war, Bill was apparently easygoing. When he came back, though, he was different—angry, detached, and alcoholic.

Rozlyn and Bill have two grown children who both witnessed alcoholism and violence throughout their childhoods. Their son, “Billy,” often got into trouble at school. By seventh grade, he was committing petty crimes. Billy is now serving a life sentence for the murder of a sales clerk during a botched robbery.

The couple’s daughter, "Ashley," hasn’t fared much better. After being sexually abused by her drunk father, she ran away from home at the age of 14. Ashley became addicted to drugs and had three children out of wedlock, all of whom are now in foster care.

There’s no doubt that Rozlyn’s story is tragic. Her family has been marred by violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, and unplanned pregnancies; chances are strong that her grandchildren will continue this downward spiral into hopeless dysfunction. Along the way, their problematic behaviors will tax our overburdened legal, healthcare, education, and social service systems, leading our country into ever-increasing debt and crisis.

How to handle people like Bill, Rozlyn and their offspring has been publicly debated for years. Out of that debate has come solutions such as Prohibition and repeal, the war on drugs and legalized pot, Planned Parenthood and abstinence education, three strikes and overflowing prisons. But despite all our attempts to solve society’s ills, they don’t go away. The generational cycle of despair goes on.

Perhaps that’s because we’re approaching these problems all wrong. Instead of viewing addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse, unplanned pregnancies, and crime as separate issues, we need to look at the root cause.

More often than not, that root cause is psychological trauma.

Psychological trauma is what happens to people after they experience violence—from things like war, domestic abuse, child abuse, and crime. It negatively affects people in profound and permanent ways. Consider these findings:

  • Up to 30 percent of veterans who suffer trauma in war eventually develop prolonged cases of PTSD.[i] Research indicates that 39 percent of veterans are alcoholics and 3 percent abuse drugs.[ii] Combat veterans are responsible for 21 percent of all domestic abuse cases nationwide.
  • Childhood trauma—such as being sexually abused, having an alcoholic parent, and or witnessing domestic violence—causes a range of psychological, emotional, and physical problems. One long-term study found that up to 80 percent of abused children had at least one psychiatric disorder at age 21.[iii] PTSD, borderline personality disorder, dissociative disorders, depression, and anxiety are all linked to a history of child abuse, as are eating disorders, sexual problems (including teen pregnancy), addiction, ADHD, learning disabilities, self-harm behaviors, and a propensity for victimization in adulthood.
  • Boys who were abused in childhood are twice as likely to commit crimes. It is estimated that crime indirectly induced by abuse costs society between $6.7-$62.5 billion a year.[iv]

Considering all the collateral damage done by trauma, it’s not an overstatement to say that psychological trauma may be the single biggest factor negatively affecting our society. Yet, I’ve never heard the term “psychological trauma” used in the mainstream media, and it’s rarely considered a factor in educational or legal systems. While social service and mental health professionals sometimes factor in trauma, it is rarely given the weight it deserves.

This is a shame, because when people are properly informed about the effects of trauma—and use that knowledge to deal with problematic, traumatized people—positive changes occur. In Washington state, for instance, a trauma-informed approach to misbehaving students has led to an 85 percent reduction in suspension rates.[v] Using a trauma-informed approach with incarcerated juvenile delinquents has been shown to lower recidivism.[vi]

Imagine if Bill had been properly treated for the effects of trauma after he’d come home from war. It may have curbed his alcoholism and abusive behavior toward his wife and kids. If the kids had not grown up in an abusive home, chances are they wouldn’t have moved into lives of addiction and crime. The penal system would have one less inmate. The legal system would have one less murder victim and one less murder victim’s family. The foster care system would have three fewer kids bringing problems into the educational and mental health systems. The cycle goes on.

If we, as a society, could wake up to psychological trauma as the root cause of many of our problems, we could institute trauma-informed approaches in our legal, health, social service, and educational systems. Then, perhaps, our interventions might actually do some good.

I hope we do.

Otherwise, the cost—in money and lives—is just too high.


[i] Ramchand, R., Schell, T., Karney, B., Osilla, K., Burns, R. & Caldarone, L. (2010). Disparate prevalence estimates of PTSD among service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan: possible explanations. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 23(1), 59–68.

[ii] Eisen, S., Schultz, M., Vogt, D., Glickman, M., Elwy, A., Drainoni, M., et al. (2012). Mental and physical health status and alcohol and drug use following return from deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. American Journal of Public Health, 102, 66–73.

[iii] Silverman, A., Reinherz, H. & Giaconia, R. (1996). The long-term sequelae of child and adolescent abuse: a longitudinal community study. Child Abuse and Neglect, 20(8), 709-23.

[iv] Currie, J. & Tekin, E. (2006) Does child abuse cause crime? [working paper No. 12171] The National Bureau of Economic Research.

[v] Stevens, J. (2012, April 13). Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, tries new approach to school discipline—suspensions drop 85%. ACEs Too High.

[vi] Griffin, G, Germain, E. & Wilkerson, R. (2012). Using a trauma-informed approach in juvenile justice institutions. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 5(3), 271-283.

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