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Roots of Mental Illness: The Impact of Trauma

Updated: Apr 17

As a healthcare executive, author, speaker, researcher, and trauma therapist with over 25 years of experience, I've had the privilege of working with thousands of patients and colleagues from all walks of life.

Throughout my journey, I've made a startling observation: most of the human suffering resides not only in past trauma itself but in how we make sense of those past hurts.

Our understanding of the past is often obscured by a lens of shame, regret, resentment, and judgment. We ask ourselves impossible either/or questions about the unchangeable past, setting ourselves up for sorrow: Has my life been happy or sad? Meaningful or meaningless? Filled with love or suffering? These polarized perspectives deny our inherent growth, evolution, and increasing wisdom over time, overlooking our dynamic humanity.

As both a survivor and facilitator of trauma healing, I've learned that our past is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong. It is simply our personal history, containing moments of struggle and joy, like any human life. With radical self-compassion for where we've been, we can free ourselves from the desire to judge, grasp, or push away any experience.

Instead, we can ask ourselves more clarifying questions about the past, focused on fostering understanding rather than condemnation. For instance: Who was I at each stage of life? How did I understand myself and the world back then? What core beliefs shaped my thoughts, feelings, and actions? What inner wounds or resources defined each chapter?

This contextual approach prevents getting weighed down by regret, allowing us to learn from the past. When we inquire without judgment, we unlock repressed aspects of self, reclaiming our inner wholeness.

The Surging Mental Health Crisis

With suicides and substance abuse nationwide reaching devastating levels, it's clear that too many among us lack frameworks for making sense of emotional wounds from the past. Mental health counselors are overwhelmed in meeting the rising demand.

Consider these alarming statistics about America's surging mental health crisis:

  • Suicide rose 33% over the past 20 years, now the 2nd leading cause of death for ages 10-34 (CDC, 2021)

  • Depression diagnoses are increasing by an average of 20% annually (Hasin et al., 2018)

  • Overdose deaths hit record highs in 2021, totaling over 150,000 lives lost (CDC, 2022)

  • 70% of adults report symptoms of stress and anxiety (American Psychological Association, 2022)

  • 1 in 6 Americans live with a mental illness, over 50 million people (SAMHSA, 2021)

Meanwhile, an overwhelmed system struggles to match limited mental healthcare resources to skyrocketing demand. Therapists report average caseloads of up to 60 clients per week, fueling severe burnout (Ellis, 2019). With the highest-ever ratio of over 1000-to-1 patients to providers, long waitlists leave many unable to access care et all (SAMHSA, 2022).

The Emerging Trauma-Informed Approach

Fortunately, awareness is rising around the pervasive yet overlooked role of emotional trauma in fueling widespread mental distress. Across science and psychology, a paradigm shift is emerging, recognizing that unprocessed painful memories and self-judgment drive mood disorders, addiction, chronic health problems, violence, and more.

The trauma-informed approach encourages helpers to identify clients dealing with distress stemming from past experiences for which they lacked support. Understanding how unhealed trauma shapes core beliefs that drive present suffering changes how we approach care.

Armed with this knowledge, trauma-informed professionals can guide clients in rewriting old stories that hold them back. They bring a non-judgmental, compassionate presence, holding space for truth, grief, and ownership of hard histories. Counselors partner with clients to reshape rigid assumptions formed in emotional defense or isolation after crisis moments. Therapists facilitate the gradual unpacking of old psychic wounds that still trigger reactive fear, rage, collapse, or disconnection in the present.

With patient support in processing the past without judgment, survivors rediscover innate reservoirs of resilience and restore their capacity for intimacy, creativity, and meaning. Ongoing attunement to trauma's impacts builds tolerance for emotional distress, loosening trauma's grip. Gradually, neural pathways driving fight/flight/freeze responses relax, alleviating symptoms like chronic anxiety, depression, and hypervigilance. Playful curiosity and joy naturally return when no longer consumed by past pain.

The bottom line? Unaddressed trauma drives America's worsening mental health emergency. Healing trauma prevents many mood disorders, addiction, and suicide risk. By recognizing trauma responses and releasing old pain humanely, we transform the quality of life for countless individuals.

If you're a nurse, teacher, first responder, healthcare professional, counselor, therapist, or coach seeking to deepen your understanding of trauma and expand your skill set, I invite you to visit There, you'll find information on the NeuroNarrative Approach™ classes, coaching, retreats, and intensives I offer to empower healing professionals like yourself in effectively treating trauma. Together, we can bring much-needed clarity and compassion to the vital work of transforming lives.

In Gratitude,

Trey Malicoat, M.S.


American Psychological Association. (2022). Stress in America 2022. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Leading Causes of Death – United States. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts: Overview. Retrieved from

Hasin, D. S., Sarvet, A. L., Meyers, J. L., Saha, T. D., Ruan, W. J., Stohl, M., & Grant, B. F. (2018). Epidemiology of adult DSM-5 major depressive disorder and its specifiers in the United States. JAMA Psychiatry, 75(4), 336-346.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2021). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Retrieved from

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