Why family is behind so many mental health issues

Why family is behind so many mental health issues

An oak tree starts as an acorn – and it always lands close to the tree from which it falls.

If the soil it falls into is not very good and it doesn’t get sufficient rain and sunlight, it will grow… But never to its full magnificent towering potential.

As well, because its start in life is not as good as it really needs to be, its roots will not take hold as they should. Its roots will not grow and spread like they are meant to do.

This means if ever there is a storm, as there will be, it might come crashing down.

It is the same with us. In fact, human babies are born much sooner in developmental terms than virtually any other animal.

Look at a foal for example – within two hours of being born a foal can stand, walk and many can even trot. Around a week after birth they can eat grass and hay.

Even baby elephants can stand almost immediately after they are born. Then they will be walking within one or two hours.

Yet for a human baby it usually takes five to six months until they can stand. In the US, the average age of independent walking is around 12 months.

Dependent not independent

So we are utterly dependent on a parent or caregiver for the first year. Actually, it’s much longer than this as it takes further time for a human infant to be capable of feeding themselves and getting drinks.

As well there is the human need for shelter and clothing to keep warm. Then there is the need we all have for love.

Family in these matters refers to our family of origin. This is the significant parents, caregivers and siblings that someone grows up with for several years or usually longer – until the age of leaving home.

It is the first social group that someone belongs to. This is most frequently someone’s biological family or a family that adopts them.

Building on sand or stone

A human baby is born when their brain still needs to significantly develop. This is most likely simply due to physical reasons that the head that contains the human brain cannot grow any bigger inside the mother’s womb and neither could it fit to be born into this world.

So the baby grows into an infant, then a child and into a teenager until they finally flee the nest. But, just as with an acorn, if they’re in a poor environment they will not grow as magnificently as they should.

Family experts say this is the most important role as a parent or caregiver. Ensure that the environment for children is as positive and healthy as it can be.

Obviously any baby and child will need to eat nutritional food regularly as well as sleep enough and get some exercise in order for them to develop physically well. But if they don’t get these it will also have a negative impact on them emotionally.

Firstly, the brain might not develop as it ought. But, for instance, if a child is not fed regularly and well it will be an emotional starving too.

Children need to know they are loved.

Particularly in the first eight years, children are learning and picking up so much information. If the environment that they are growing up in is not healthy, it is like building a home on sand rather than rock.

Our foundations need to be deep and on solid ground.

Toxic shame

Mental health experts talk about nature and nurture. Do our genes play a part or is it due to certain things that happen?

Many think it is both. This is the reason that two brothers who grow up in the same home often appear to be differently affected by, for instance, a drug addict mother who neglects them.

Counselor, author and a founding father of the self-help movement John Bradshaw (1933-2016) wrote a book about toxic shame. Healing The Shame That Binds You remains to this day one of the world’s bestselling recovery books.

Toxic shame is when someone carries shame that isn’t theirs. Usually it is shame that is passed on by parents or caregivers.

It comes from some form of abuse. It most often goes with massive amounts of continual criticism.

If someone as a child is repeatedly told they are useless, wrong, bad, they are humiliated, rejected, and sometimes loathed, of course it blatantly has a terrible consequence. It is like putting a poison inside them – it is toxic.

However, because as children we often don’t know any different, and are so reliant on our parents or caregivers, many people internalize it. Then it shapes who they become as an adult.

What then people think of as someone’s character traits may not really belong to them at all. They are most likely self-defense tactics and coping mechanisms they have learned in an attempt to deflect the relentless criticism or try to avoid getting abused again.


Addiction expert Dr Gabor Maté explains how at some stage during his decades-long career on the addiction frontline he realized that every person he saw had suffered from trauma. Most often it was in their childhood, often some form of abuse.

Maté believes that addiction and many other mental health issues are due to what he describes as the “compressed torment of generations”.

Trauma derives from a Greek word meaning “wound”. That is precisely what it is – but usually it’s an internal one that can’t be seen.

However, it most definitely can be felt by the person who has it.

Maté often repeats that the question ought never to be: “Why the addiction?”. Instead it needs to be: “Why the pain?”.

“Depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar illness, PTSD, even psychosis, are significantly rooted in trauma,” Dr Maté states. “They are manifestations of trauma.

“The diagnoses don’t explain a thing. The medical world’s problem is we diagnose somebody – then we think that’s the explanation.

“She’s behaving in that manner because she has ADHD. He’s behaving like that because he’s psychotic…

“But no one has ADHD or psychosis. It’s not something that you have. It’s a process that expresses your life experience.”

Clearly, sexual, physical and emotional abuse is traumatic. So too is being in or witnessing a serious traffic accident.

But then a sensitive child may get traumatized because their parents always ignore them. Having unmet needs as a child can cause many mental health problems in later life, such as an anxiety disorder.

For instance, think of a parent who is working all hours but even when they are at home they are staring at their cell phone instead of paying attention to their children. This will have a negative impact.

What we say and do shapes the world around us.

A failure of love

Both toxic shame and trauma fall under a phrase that is a “failure of love“. It was termed by psychiatrist and ex-consultant at NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) Dr Peter Breggin.

No stranger to controversy due to his forthright views on medication, Dr Breggin has been helping people for several decades now. He has increasingly come to see that a failure of love is what is the single circumstance behind anyone he’s seen who is suffering.

Dr Breggin has an explanation for this. “Unlike most creatures, humans are born with an essentially fetal brain. This leaves us totally dependent upon others.

“The brain doubles in size during our first year. This enormously rapid growth in the size and complexity ensures that our brain develops outside our mother’s body as a social organ.

“It is an organ whose very structure and function is formed by the nurturing influences which surround it. Nurturing in the first few years of life guides the development and expression of our social nature and our power as a species to survive and to thrive.

“Lack of that nurturing leads to psychological and social impairments. Love and empathy are key to our social nature.

“Nearly all human personal or emotional success depends upon being able to give and to accept love. Nearly all human personal failure reflects an inability to do so.”

Dr Breggin has helped people by realizing that most emotional problems or many types of mental illness are “disorders of love and we heal from these disorders to the degree that we learn to give and to accept love”.

So it can be seen that our childhood environment can be either extremely damaging or vital in shaping who we become in our lives. As well as the damage that can occur as we grow up due to what is said or done to us, we imitate our parents and caregivers.

This is a natural thing to do because as children we learn from adults. But if the teachers in this instance aren’t very capable – and they will have most likely learned from their parents, and so this can go back many generations – then what we imitate will not help us much in life.

For instance, if as a child we saw that the automatic response to something not going the way our father wanted it to go was rage… Naturally, we are much more likely to be uncontrollably angry as adults.

We may carry anger too at the lack of love we were shown – and this can show as anger towards others or to life in general. Or it can sometimes be internalized and show as depression.

We are a family–run recovery center at Tikvah Lake. Every one of our staff and anyone who chooses to spend time with us is treated as a member of our family in our home here.

We fully understand the importance of this. We know how essential it is for recovery to have a peaceful, supportive and relaxing environment.

We are in the ideal natural setting to boost your physical and emotional well-being too. Our luxurious mansion by the most beautiful tranquil lake is created for our guests with your utter relaxation in mind. In Florida here we’re blessed to have warm sunshine most days all year.

Our experienced team has decades of expertise helping people with all emotional issues and mental health problems. Contact us today to have an initial chat about how we can help you or someone you love.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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