What is causing so many young people to identify as emotionally damaged?
There’s a new trend on TikTok, wedged in-between videos of teenagers dancing and singing: confessions of trauma. The app is rife with young people, particularly young women, engaging in the same behaviour. The #trauma hashtag has a staggering 3.9 billion views. Most surprising about these confessions is their generally light-hearted tone — one famous musician follows the popular format of claiming his humour comes from his ‘trauma’ — as well as their intentional vagueness. What is causing these thousands of young people to identify themselves as emotionally damaged?
@mtvmcribsdo YOU have a favorite traumatic memory?? #trauma♬ original sound – ben
I first started to notice the popularisation of ‘trauma theory’ — the idea that most of a person’s problems can be traced back to some unresolved, vague traumatic events in their life — after hearing learning about a book that was popular among young women.
Nearly seven years on from its publication, it remains the #1 ranked book under ‘Healing’ on Amazon, the massively popular text ‘The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma’ by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. Which may seem strange, given that the book’s target audience is a relatively small niche — that of doctors specialising in PTSD related disorders.
Hot on the heels of ‘consent theory’, which told us that we were facing a ‘consent crisis’, ‘trauma’ has become the latest fad to hit feminist wellness circles. Perhaps the reason for its enduring popularity with young, socially-conscious people is thanks to van der Kolk’s assertion that, left untreated, trauma can begin to manifest itself through physical ailments. Constant headaches? Back pain? Short of breath? Don’t call an ambulance, call a psychiatrist.
This is not to downplay the seriousness of trauma. Doctors have shown the links between mental distress and physical illness for years. But what is curious is why exactly so many ostensibly normal, healthy young people believe themselves to be suffering such mental distress, without any of the typical experiences of those traditionally diagnosed with PTSD.
The difference between trauma and other mental illnesses in the spotlight like generalised anxiety disorder is that trauma is explicitly defined as a responsive action to a negative external stressor. Trauma, and the mental illness most closely associated with it (PTSD), are therefore closely linked to broader societal conditions. If there is a significant uptake in young people identifying themselves as traumatised, it stands to reason there is a significant stressor embedded in wider culture.
It is not healthy to have 1 in 8 young people seeking out professional mental help, nor for 17% of the adult population to be hooked on powerful anti-depressant drugs with nasty side effects. We should be concerned that young people pathologise their dissatisfaction with modern life, adapting in unhealthy ways to untenable social conditions. Falling back on ‘trauma’ as a catch-all explainer doesn’t bring us closer to a genuine solution.