OPINION: Not all trauma is created equal

0:00

'Trauma' is the mental health buzzword of 2018. Vice Australia contributor, Katherine Gillespie, asks, 'Are we oversimplifying a complex concept?'

Earlier this month, the New Yorker published a startling personal essay from Dominican American writer and academic Junot Diaz detailing how being raped at eight years old has had an ongoing and devastating impact on his adult life. “Trauma is a time traveler,” he writes, “an ouroboros that reaches back and devours everything that came before.”

The essay quickly ricocheted around the internet, garnering praise and then, inevitably, some backlash. It stands as a notable attempt to unravel the effects of severe childhood trauma—make it understandable to readers who have not experienced it themselves, as well as those who have. The timing is prescient: Diaz taps into a mental health conversation that has begun to take precedence within online communities.

If anxiety was the internet's mental health topic of choice in 2017, “trauma” is the buzzword for this year. An awareness of the past’s ability to affect the present is, suddenly, everywhere: in animal-themed memes about therapy, and dark Twitter jokes about trauma’s intergenerational reach. Roxane Gay’s bestselling book Hunger: A Memoir of my Body explains the physical effects of childhood trauma that emerge in adulthood. Melbourne author Sarah Krasnostein recently topped the Victorian premier's literary awards for her biography The Trauma Cleaner—about Sandra Pankhurst, who has spent her life cleaning up scenes of distress. (You can watch The Feed's interview with Sandra below.)

The widening definitions of mental health problems and the increasing focus on them in our culture is making some people more fragile, not more resilient.

Celebrities have trauma too: Teen Mom star Catelynn Lowell recently admitted that she is seeking help for an unspecified “trauma”, and a glowing New York Times profile of actress Evan Rachel Wood declares that “Ms. Wood’s mission is always to turn her trauma into some other force.”

As with all mental health issues that become memes, the definition of trauma is expanding and shifting outside of a clinical context as it becomes more frequently discussed. There’s a subsequent risk of legitimate incidences of trauma being trivialised, or illegitimate instances being held to the same level as legitimate ones. Does a bad experience with a boyfriend or parent constitute trauma? What about a particularly hard exam? “College literally is draining me,” tweets one twenty-something, “and I wanna know who can I speak to about getting compensation for my mental trauma.” The headline of a recently published BuzzFeed quiz22 Kids Films That Absolutely Fucking Traumatised a Generation.

It is of understandable concern to mental health workers, psychologists and psychiatrists that words like “trauma” are being thrown around more casually on and offline. “People increasingly use it to refer to upsetting events that are not nearly as severe as the official definition of a traumatic event,” says Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne. “Like an ordinary romantic break-up or failing to get into the course they want to. Or a general state of being upset or distressed about something that happened to them.”

More worrying still are those people self-diagnosing for PTSD “based on having some lingering ill effects of a past life event, even if its severity would not come close to what would be required for a formal diagnosis.”

The clinical definition of trauma isn’t super flexible, although much of its linguistic ambiguity comes from the fact it can refer to both a negative event and a person’s reaction to that event. “I would define a traumatic event as one in which a person was exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence, either directly or as a witness,” Haslam says. A post traumatic stress disorder diagnosis requires that the patient exhibit “an assortment of disabling symptoms, including re-experiencing the trauma, avoiding reminders of it, having a high level of distress and emotional arousal.” He notes that although conversations around trauma are gaining prominence, its clinical definition hasn’t changed since 2013, when the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was published.

More worrying still are those people self-diagnosing for PTSD...

Online mental health conversations tend to become meta: the internet, many users admit, can be a traumatising place in itself. A distressing 24-hour news cycle, social media-based movements like #MeToo which have vast capacity to re-traumatise victims of sexual assault, the ubiquitous presence of trolls, and a constant pressure to present oneself in an authentic but aesthetic way: these are all pitfalls of internet life. Are we all just mental health meme-ing ourselves into a frenzy?

“I think a case can be made that although increased awareness is overall a good thing, the widening definitions of mental health problems and the increasing focus on them in our culture is making some people more fragile, not more resilient,” says Haslam. “People are becoming more worried and preoccupied about their mental health and arguably being too ready sometimes to define everyday life problems as mental illnesses."

But, as Diaz’s essay explicitly hopes, honesty on the internet can also start positive conversations and elevate awareness of mental health treatment options. “One upside is that young people are increasingly aware of the forms that mental ill-health can take and what to do if they or people they care about seem to be experiencing them,” Haslam admits.

As long as medical practitioners are included in the conversation, online communities seem to promise some level of support and understanding—even if we’re still figuring out how our constant mental health discussions can be productive. On the internet like nowhere else before, those suffering from trauma can relate to others in the same position without fear of stigma, and most crucially without fear of being disbelieved.

Coming Clean: The life of a trauma cleaner

0:00