Abuse/Trauma as the cause of mental illness

When we, or someone we love, struggles with a mental illness, we usually want to understand “why”.

We still don’t know the exact causes of mental illness. It may differ from person to person. Many experts agree that there seems to be both genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the development of a mental illness.

I like how Joseph W. Ciarrocchi explained it in relationship to the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder:

“Inherited tendencies for OCD include subtle variations in brain structure, circuitry, and neurochemistry. These combine with environmental factors such as trauma. The inherited biological predispositions are like a tinderbox which, when combined with the environmental lightning bolts, can ignite and activate OCD symptoms.”

No one escapes life without experiencing some type of unavoidable trauma. The trauma could be a car crash, the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, military combat, childhood bullying, an accident where someone is injured. There are a myriad of things that can set off the “genetic tinderbox” of a person whose brain is susceptible to the physical or chemical changes producing mental illness.

For many of us, the trauma that overloaded our brain and set the mental illness into motion was abuse.

Emotional abuse pervades all other types of abuse that occur. You don’t have just hitting and kicking or just sexual assault. These actions send the emotionally abusive message “you are worthless”. And these acts are often accompanied by explicit emotionally abusive words and behaviors.

For many abuse survivors, it is the emotional abuse that is most damaging and affects them for the longest amount of time.

Whether is is physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, or emotional abuse—all create feelings of worthlessness, fear, and insecurity, which are some of the principle ingredients in depression and anxiety disorders.

I recently read an article about the role of emotional and verbal abuse in the development of mental illnesses.

Harvard psychiatrists studied the impact of emotional abuse and found that “Scolding, swearing, yelling, blaming, insulting, threatening, ridiculing, demeaning, and criticizing can be as harmful as physical abuse, sexual abuse outside the home, or witnessing physical abuse at home….when verbal abuse is constant and severe, it creates a risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, the same type of psychological collapse experienced by combat troops…”

The researchers found that verbal abuse “had as great an effect as physical or nondomestic sexual mistreatment. Verbal aggression alone turns out to be a particularly strong risk factor for depression, anger-hostility, and dissociation disorders.”

According to this article, there are other studies which have found that those who were verbally abused as children have a significantly higher risk of developing OCD, paranoia, narcissism, and angry/unstable personalities.

I came across another article about a different study in which researches used an MRI to measure specific brain connections in adolescents who had been abused.

According to this study from the University of Wisconsin, these MRI scans found “weaker connections between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus in both boys and girls who had been maltreated as children…Girls who had been maltreated also had relatively weak connections between the prefrontal cortex the amygdala.”

One of the authors of the study, Ryan Herringa, explained that “those weaker connections actually mediated or led to the development of anxiety and depressive symptoms by late adolescence”.

For many people with mental illness, shame and self-blame are often an additional problem. We feel guilty for having these illnesses and feel like they are our fault. Although we are responsible for how we deal with them now and for our own recovery efforts, we did not choose to develop these disorders. For many of us it was trauma and genetics—both of which are outside our control–that caused them to begin.

I don’t write this so we can choose to be more angry at our abusers or at a past trauma we can’t change. I write it so that we can properly assign blame, and once we can do that we can begin to move forward in forgiveness and healing.

Here are the articles I quotes in this post if you would like to check them out:




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