Understanding Trauma’s Impact

Life was ideal until I was a first grader in a small school where I became the target of a fourth grade bully. Our teacher passively permitted the bully’s daily torment of words and physical intimidation.

I could not understand why my friends joined in. He ordered them to call him, “Captain,” threatening harsh punishment if they disobeyed. Each privately apologized to me for not standing up to him.

Because I sensed my job as a school-age person was to learn how to solve my own problems, I kept the abuse a secret from my parents. The bullying ended when we moved so my parents could start a business.

The impact of the bullying experience left a mark on my social and academic functioning for years, and memories and feelings from the bullying sometimes still get triggered, but I was lucky. I had the fortune of what social scientists call “protective factors” in my life, helping to build resilience.

I lived in a safe home in a nice neighborhood. My family was supportive, pursued recreation together, kept a regular routine, consistently communicated love and respect, and was financially secure. My new school was safe, and I made new friends. Children are better able to emerge from adversity if they have these protective factors.

Many are not so lucky.

Adverse experiences can be traumatic at any age, with an impact so great that brain imaging shows structural change. Traumatic experience is more common than we used to think. A large national study found one in four Americans have experienced psychological trauma. More than 6 percent of women and 10 percent of men reported four or more experiences. The risk of mental health problems rises with frequency.

Risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increases when traumatic experiences involve interpersonal violence. In PTSD, an individual’s body (including their mind) responds like it is under attack long after a threat is gone, which can severely impair normal functioning. About seven or eight out of every 100 people will have PTSD at some point in their lives. About eight million Americans have PTSD this year. Among U.S. military service personnel, the numbers are higher. Between 11 and 20 percent of Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and New Dawn Veterans have PTSD in any given year. We continue to learn about trauma and its impact on our health, as well as learn what we can do to empower recovery.

The Recovery Lecture Series by Copper Country Mental Health and the Rice Memorial Clinic Foundation will this month feature a military Veteran impacted by trauma and PTSD. Trish Russell will share her recovery story as well as her “ARC Journey,” a recovery process she developed. Two free open-to-the-public presentations will be held Wednesday, June 27. A 1 pm presentation will be in the Hancock Middle School auditorium, 501 Campus Drive in Hancock, then a second opportunity to see the presentation will take place at 7 pm, at Copper Country Mental Health Institute, 900 W Sharon Avenue in Houghton. Call 906-482-4880 for more details.

Brian D. Rendel, MA, LLP, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor and is the Training and Prevention Coordinator at Copper Country Mental Health Institute in Houghton.