One Important (and Highly Ignored) Cause of Mental Health Issues

What I learned as a former mental health nurse and patient

Gillian May
Feb 24 · 5 min read
Photo Credit: Vishnu_KV, Pixabay

The World Health Organization states that 1 in 5 adults and youth in the US are currently experiencing mental health issues.

Discussions around the causes and appropriate treatments for mental illness are heated and plenty.

I find myself in an interesting position as a former mental health nurse, who also suffers from mental health issues. I have family members with severe mental health problems as well. I mention this because it’s important to know that I’ve experienced the mental health puzzle from many angles.

As a professional, I read all the statistics and became well-versed in treatment, advocacy, research and education. I taught undergraduate nursing, obtained a Masters degree and worked at an administrative level.

On a personal front, I watched my father try and fail to get help for depression and alcoholism before he slowly spiralled to his death in 2016. I’ve also witnessed my brother struggle desperately with both a developmental disability and schizoaffective disorder.

Then, I had my own personal meltdown in 2011.

I had struggled with depression and alcohol issues and utilized medication and therapy for years. They helped keep me afloat but by late 2010, I was drowning. My depression was threatening my life and medication wasn’t working anymore.

So, at rock bottom, I did the only thing I thought would save me. I quit my job, cashed out my savings and went on a search for deeper answers. I will likely share more about this in future posts.

Please know that I’m not advocating for anyone else to do this. It was a horrid path at times, but it’s what I needed.


From these personal and professional experiences, I came away with an important conclusion.

Trauma is a major contributing factor in mental illnesses and addictions.

It has always been distressing to me that trauma is treated as a fairly benign issue in diagnostic and treatment discussions for both inpatient care and community health teams.

There’s plenty of research to support the importance of including trauma in mental health discussions. A study published by the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 1998 showed that 98% of the 275 people in the sample group, all of whom were diagnosed with severe mental illness, had experienced trauma. Another study published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology in 2013 found that rates of trauma were significantly higher in people with mental illness than the general population. The same study also suggested that the relationship between trauma and mental illness is not often recognized in clinical practice.

Dr. Gabor Mate, a renowned addictions and mental health physician, has discussed the catastrophic effects of trauma on all the patients he worked with over several decades. He says that trauma causes a disconnection from the self which makes mental illness and addiction more likely to occur as a result.

As a mental health nurse in a general psychiatry setting, I did not come across a single patient that didn’t have a history of serious trauma in the form of abuse, rape, abandonment, or neglect.

My father, brother and myself all experienced trauma at early ages.

The attitude towards the role of trauma in mental health issues shows at best, an indifference, and at worst, an outright refusal.

Instead, statistics are thrown around that discuss a number of people with mental illness that don’t report a history of trauma. Yet these statistics fail to talk about built-in psychological mechanisms that protect us from emotional pain by blocking or skewing our memory. That, and fear of the repercussions of speaking out, create a large number of traumatic events that go unreported.


This left me with more confusion and questions in my practice as I had not come across anyone with mild or serious mental health issues that didn’t have a trauma history. Then, when I looked at my own mental health struggles and trauma history, I had to admit that my confidence in mental healthcare had begun to waver.

Within a few years of beginning my personal healing journey, I found myself on a path that would take me outside the boundaries of conventional medicine. But more importantly, the results were nothing short of miraculous for me.

My treatment modalities included energy medicine, neurogenic yoga, shamanic plant medicine, ayahuasca, and anger therapy.

They all had one important thing in common — releasing trauma energy from my body.


How do you release trauma energy?

A person can talk about a trauma but until they really feel and release the stored energy, trauma just sits in the body like a rotting and fermenting entity. The important part of trauma release is the ability to feel emotions and release them physically. This is both simple and complex since most of us are taught to bury emotions. Physical release happens through actions such as crying, screaming, shaking, throwing, or safely hitting an inanimate object.

Trauma release is not commonly part of the diagnostic, treatment and policy discussions in health care. Many think it’s unsubstantiated fluff put out by natural health buffs that don’t observe science. Yet things like crying and trembling are universal mechanisms to release pain, sadness, humiliation and anger. Everyone does it. Perhaps, the fact that we often shame people for doing these things may give us clues as to why trauma release gets waved off in healthcare discussions.

Hopefully more studies will be done to show the healthcare industry how trauma release can help with mental health and addiction issues. First, we need a willingness to admit that it’s worth studying. At the very least, we can understand that trauma is an energetic process.

And since science says that energy can never be destroyed, but can move or change forms, we can conclude that trauma release moves energy out of the body.


Medical treatments for mental illness save lives and should be utilized. But I hope that services and professionals will begin to recognize the importance of trauma as a root cause of illness and addictions. Furthermore, trauma release work should not be met with rolling eyes and disdain when discussing treatment, research, and changes to health care policy.

Although I still struggle with anxiety sometimes, I am 3 years sober and can’t even remember what depression felt like.

I currently advocate for trauma release therapy for my brother.

I wish my father had a chance to release his trauma, I wonder if he would be alive today if he had.


Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

Gillian May

Written by

Former nurse turned writer. Healing trauma; the roots of breakdown; writing my truth. Mental health, education, equality, mindfulness, life lessons. She/her.

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

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