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Talking trauma: trying to be heard over toxic trauma rhetoric

30 May 2024
By Callum Young
Callum Young

Trauma is a heavy word. It is thrown about across the political divide, misused and weaponised by conservatives and progressives alike. But how many of them know what ‘trauma’ really means?  

It was not so long ago that ‘trauma’ was reserved for the most harrowing of experiences: war, violence, torture. Many people have had their own trauma dismissed when held against these standards: people who have been harassed by the police; been bullied for years at school; been abused by their partner. Now, mental health professionals recognise the real and long-lasting effects that trauma can have on the body and mind. More importantly, this is filtering through society at large.  

To describe something as traumatic is becoming somewhat ‘vogue’. However, as someone diagnosed with PTSD, I have found myself pushed and pulled by trauma rhetoric. It can be incredibly distressing to find the core of your disorder used as a political football.  

Some people seek to invalidate my experience of trauma. To them, I must justify the label; publicly share the details of my life so that they can reject my diagnosis. They insist that I am part of the ‘snowflake generation’.  

Others will share their own trauma – an effort to ‘trauma bond’ with me. Sometimes this is a person’s legitimate decision to share the darkest moments of their life. For others, this is a flippant way to deligitimise my experience of trauma.  

The overuse of the term ‘trauma’ can incentivise its dismissal.

Even when people describe real trauma, they often do so with a tongue in their cheek. It is as if they seek to distance themselves from this label; escape the too real ramifications that trauma has on their lives. It is a way to reclaim their own life story, and control the narrative moving forward. It can be empowering.  

However, this can lead to some people feeling as if the word has lost its legitimacy – if trauma is so awful, why are people joking about it?  

Such ambiguity is irresistible to the ill-intentioned. The word ‘trauma’ becomes a sabre to rattle at their perceived enemy: these ‘lefties’ who don’t understand the world; these ‘softies’ who can’t cope with the ups and downs of life.  

Let me be abundantly clear: to dismiss another person’s experience of mental ill health is wrong. There is no justification for it. Trauma-related disorders are often characterised by immense guilt. In my own life, I am crippled by it; I feel ashamed of the person I am. Dismissal of trauma as illegitimate is incredibly painful. It compounds the shame; accentuates the guilt.  

Perhaps more difficult is being asked ‘where’ my trauma comes from.

The implication is that I must somehow earn my illness. That, to be accepted, I must prove to society that I am worthy of my diagnosis. To relive trauma is traumatising. It is not something which can be laid bare on demand. Even if it could, why should it have to be?  

Because, perhaps, it is poorly understood.  

More so than many issues, trauma comes leaden with preconceptions. PTSD itself, the poster-child of trauma, is still called shell-shock by some people.  

In reality, trauma is much more nuanced. Someone’s experience of trauma depends on their previous experiences; their sensitivity; their physical and social environment. It is bathed in shades of grey, and is impossible to categorise into the black and white thinking that many people desire.  

So how do we talk about trauma in a helpful way? 

We shouldn’t be afraid of the word trauma. We shouldn’t be hesitant to use it when discussing traumatic events in our lives. The trick, in my opinion, is to be respectful; to be thoughtful. This is especially true for what we say online. 

When talking about others’ trauma, we should listen before we talk. We should hear what someone has to say, and help when this is wanted and possible. We should acknowledge the barriers that trauma can place in people’s lives, and do our best to navigate them. We should be patient, understanding, generous. 

On a societal level, we need a trauma-informed culture. Currently, trauma is a nebulous thing. It is poorly understood and yet widely discussed. If trauma is going to play a role in our collective narrative, we must understand it more.  

We must be trained to talk in a trauma-informed way. This should apply across society. Teachers. Health professionals. Broadcasters. Politicians. Civil servants. We must have a communal understanding of trauma: a definition that works for everyone.  

This is integral to a productive and constructive conversation about trauma. We must do what we can to identify, understand, and discuss trauma. We must know what it means, and avoid belittling it. We should acknowledge the real harm that trauma causes, but expand ourselves beyond the confines of these harms. We should not be limited by trauma. We should be empowered by our survival of it. We must be included in discussions about toxic trauma rhetoric, and stand against the dismissal of mental ill health wherever it exists. Only in solidarity can we make these changes a reality. 

Topic: Trauma

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