The Effects of Childhood Trauma
We were all watching TV with keen interest the suspense full events that unfolded when those 12 boys were being rescued from a Thai cave. The boys were groping in total darkness and it was undoubtedly an encounter with a tormenting suffering and death. Mental-health specialists fear the boys could face symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in future.
They caution that the boys might suffer varying degrees of emotional distress which might have now subsided. There is also a possibility they could get post-traumatic stress disorder and it may affect their future in different ways.
In the case of Thai boys, periodic psychological evaluations and mental-health check-ups are being conducted at regular intervals. What the doctors adviced, was to leave the victims to re-establish normal relations with their families and friends. In the first month, too much professional intervention was not really considered as an option. Doctors were of the opinion that a proper support and understanding of teachers and parents can prevent emotional disorder or psychotic break.
They were advised to avoid talking about the episode and open up wounds. This was to enable the boys to come to a mental equilibrium themselves, control the emotions and overcome whatever they have gone through.
Dr.Jom says no one can predict whether the older or younger boys will be more traumatized over the longer term. The psychological assumption, however, is that the older teenagers will be less damaged, but it depends on so many factors and how they perceive the onslaught. The effective manner in which the experts handled the above situation offers us many insights as to how to handle trauma in our life. Many of our children today go through traumatic experiences. The most important rule here is never to expose to haphazard questioning /handling.
Kerala’s Kadalundi train disaster is one of the biggest accidents on the Indian Railway network in 2001. A passenger train was crossing the river when four carriages derailed and fell into the river.
In1993, 140 people were killed when a Kenyan passenger train crashed into a bridge and plunged into a flood-swollen river.
Jessica, when she was just 18 months old, fell into a well in her aunt’s place in Texas. Rescuers worked for 56 hours to free her from the eight-inch well casing 22 feet deep. Later Jessica’s astonishing story was featured in a television movie ‘Everybody’s Baby’.
After weeks of bad news, India wallowed in the collective catharsis of the story of a five-year-old boy called Prince who fell into an abandoned borewell in a Haryana village. He spent 50 hrs in a 60 ft deep 18inch bore well.
There are kids all around the world who get involved in train accidents, severe floods, cruelties, molestations etc. Children who experience trauma are at the risk of many health factors throughout their life if they sometimes do not receive effective psychological or psychiatric support.
Too often children do not receive the mental health care they need and lack strong support and understanding from family and teachers, which are key aspects to recovery. Psychologists say that individuals who have experienced trauma during their childhood including physical, sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, natural disasters are more prone to develop lifelong mental disorders.
Researchers have long concluded that exposure to trauma can result in severe mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, and PTSD. Experts were seriously concerned for the Thai boys’ long-term mental health. Pediatric clinicians warned they are at severe risk for developing mental illnesses, such as PTSD, as a result of the two weeks of tormenting captivity in dark, under claustrophobic and horrible conditions. But when it comes to children with traumatic experience do we take due care to address the situation with a similar seriousness?
“Kids are at a higher risk because they are still developing a sense of who they are, what their relationship is to the world and to others, their worthiness. And so a traumatic event happening in childhood can alter the development of their sense of themselves in the world,” says Dr.Brown.
The mental illness can lead them to learning difficulties and behavioural issues. “It lessens kids’ ability to concentrate, process information and, consequently, lessens their ability to get along with other kids,” opines specialist in trauma research Mr. Russell Jones.
A study performed at Rutgers Johnson Medical School also confirms this. It is pertinent to note that the study showed that language skills were below average, and attention deficit and aggression were pronounced in kids who had experienced childhood trauma.
Problems as they get older
Psychologists say that if the severity of traumatic experiences in childhood is high and frequent, the risk for developing conditions for heart and pulmonary diseases and cancer are high. More recent studies show that exposure to large amounts of stress during childhood can permanently alter even a child’s physical structure.
Childhood trauma can leave “epigenetic marks” on a child’s genes. The marks alter gene expression, by activating or silencing certain genes. To put it simply, the marks can turn on/off certain heritable traits in children.
Release of Cortisol
Scientists pinpoint how epigenetic changes, following childhood trauma, can alter the expression of cortisol — the neurochemical that is released to trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response, and to cope with stress.
In individuals with PTSD or acute stress disorder, experts say that the stress response either fails to switch off when the danger is no more, or it gets quickly turned on when it is least needed. Even when the situation is normal, a word or sight that reminds the person of the mishap can trigger cortisol release.
Cortisol is also heavily linked to the function of the body’s immune system. Adverse changes in the expression of cortisol can weaken the body’s ability to fight off infection disease, and severe illnesses.
Russell Jones, Virginia Tech professor of psychology and trauma researcher comes out with another theory i.e. a positive effect of trauma. He says certain individuals will do better after a traumatic event. Maybe he tries to say some of the Thai boys may grow more adventurous and tolerant in future.
Not all childhood trauma victims are at risk for long-term health consequences. Proper psychological care, a personal support network etcetera can work wonders and they can easily come out of the woods.
If an individual has close ties to family, friends, community, the patient is less likely to suffer long-term.
A word of caution
The global scenario looks rather glum. Some of the most severely traumatized children never seek psychiatric treatment. According to Mental Health America, only 22 percent of those kids in the US who would have benefitted from such treatment are actually receiving it. Studies suggest that a lack of access to mental health care and a lack of a collaborative family effort, are the main reasons children go unattended and untreated. What becomes crucial is the time element. They should be sent to experts and subjected to psychological intervention in time for proper results. Rest is all in vain.
If it goes untreated, the longer the longer the bad effects are going to stay.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jose Vazhuthanapilly, Bsc., LLB, DBM, CAIIB retired in 2008 as AGM from State Bank of India. He had worked as a visiting faculty in the Bank’s Staff Training Centers for 5 years. He is a writer with 20 books to his credit including books on self-help/psychology. He resides in Ernakulum, Kochi. He is active also in the social service. He can be contacted at [email protected]
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