Addiction is Based in Trauma not Just Genetics

“Despite all the research on trauma and despite all the studies that show how childhood adversity predisposes a person towards addiction in significant ways, the role of trauma remains largely ignored. Despite the consensus in brain developmental scientific circles that the brain is a social organ that develops through a child’s ongoing interaction with their environment, these facts are not yet taught in the medical schools. Most physicians don’t actually know how the brain develops. In most medical schools, although this is changing somewhat, although rather slowly, but encouragingly, most students never hear a single lecture on trauma.

For example, a few days ago, I met a young woman who was an emergency room physician in Detroit, and she had graduated from medical school in Michigan. Although I knew the answer, I asked her how many lectures she had received in medical school about emotional trauma. Not only had she not received a single lecture, but she also said emotional trauma wasn’t even mentioned once in any of the classes that she took. This absence is astounding when you consider the fact that trauma is the basis of most mental illness and most addiction. Also, and this should be obvious, there are all kinds of secondary physical consequences as well.

There is a physician named Dr. David E. Smith who founded the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco during the hippy era, and he has dealt first-hand with addiction quite a bit. He once told me that the medical profession is traumaphobic. I completely agree with him, and I see it all the time. It’s not just the medical professional, but society as a whole. We are traumaphobic at our very core. We are so afraid to look at it because we deny our own experiences. We are so afraid of our own pain. Despite all the research, we are in constant denial of it. This has been going on for a very long time now.

We basically will only acknowledge trauma in extreme cases like the PTSD symptomology of combat veterans, but we are less interested in recognizing how many adults suffer from PTSD because they were traumatized in childhood. To accept such an idea would demand an entirely different set of social attitudes and social policies as well as economic priorities. We would have to question how we support families and the nature of childcare and maternity leaves and paternity leaves and so on and so forth.

Such a list does not even include the challenges presented by present-day law enforcement. It has been presented as the answer for so many years to the drug epidemic despite the fact that it is clearly not working and often causing more harm than good. Law enforcement and the criminal justice system never has been, never will be, and never can be the answer to the drug problem in general and the opioid epidemic in specific.

However, despite this failure, we are still unwilling to put resources into the compassionate, comprehensive, and long-term treatment of addiction and of the trauma that lies behind the addiction. If we did this, politicians would have to stop preaching about law enforcement, which is a cheap vote-getter that attacks the most traumatized people in our society. The whole jail industrial complex is designed to make money off of trauma. They would have to let go of their addiction to profit.

A true understanding of the role of trauma would require a huge systemic adjustment. If we look only at addiction treatment programs, the need for such a systemic adjustment remains. They still focus only on the behavior of addiction as opposed to the driving engine of addiction, which is trauma. They would have to change what they are doing, and it does not appear that they are willing to make such changes at this time. Even if it means saving lives and also saving money in the long-term, our society is all about the short-term status quo of the checkbook and avoiding any added expenses in the present. Any true systemic change is going to require time, effort, and investment. A large part of the resistance to accepting the role of trauma is the resistance to taking this step.”

-Dr. Gabor Mate-

(Source: 1. https://www.thefix.com/dr-gabor-mate-donald-trump-traumaphobia-and-compassion-interview 2. Pic: SheppardPratt.org)

Shayne Mason Vincent, MSW
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