Understanding the lived experience of childhood trauma amongst adults with mental health problems

  • Robert Tummey

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Study Aims: The purpose of this study is to investigate the lived experience of childhood trauma amongst adults with mental health problems. The specific aim is to understand these abusive experiences in terms of their various forms (nature), when and how they started (causes), the efforts made by survivors to protect themselves from such abuse (coping) and the long-term consequences into adulthood (impact).

Methods: The study is organised around the principles of interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) employing semi-structured interviews. The homogeneous sample population included 15 participants who satisfied the inclusion criteria: 1) being over 18 years old; 2) having a mental health problem; and 3) self-identifying as suffering some form of childhood trauma.

Findings: The IPA analytic process highlighted a number of superordinate themes. Participants talked about their experiences of childhood trauma in terms of a range of physical, sexual, emotional and neglectful forms of abuse. Moreover, these traumatic experiences did not represent isolated incidents but were typically interpreted as: pervasive, varied and continuous throughout their childhood. In an effort to deal with these multiple forms of abuse a range of coping strategies were attempted including: avoidance of others through self-isolation; the formulation of cognitive distortions through the construction of an ‘imagined world’; and retaliation against the self (through self-harm and suicidal ideations, plans or attempts) or against others. Participants also talked about the profound impact these traumatic experiences continued to have on their lives, especially how such abuse had: completely undermined their sense of self; forced them to live an isolated existence, marginalised from the social world around them; and had left them lacking any sense of positive psychosocial wellbeing.

Conclusions: It is argued that these traumatic childhood experiences significantly undermine existing social attachments and participants’ ability to develop positive attachment styles. In turn, these poor attachment skills affect their social and personal relationships throughout the course of their lives. Furthermore, it is suggested that the post-traumatic consequences of their childhood experiences have a profound effect on: their cognitive functioning through a deficit in memory, learning and perception; generating a pervasive sense of hopelessness that there is no future, no alternative options and that nothing will change; and their ability to remain resilient drains as they attempt to cope and adapt to adversity. Through employing these varied theoretical interpretations of the findings, a speculative outline of an explanatory psychosocial model is presented which attempts to understand why some people who are traumatised as children are at risk of developing mental health difficulties during adulthood.

Implications: In terms of policy and practice outcomes: 1) There needs to be greater psychosocial emphasis in mental health recovery; 2) The nature and impact of childhood trauma needs to be more thoroughly considered in terms of mental health assessments; 3) Attachment-based strategies could be considered in therapeutic interventions; 4) Greater priority given to enhancing personal and social resilience through safeguarding, improved parenting and social quality.
Date of AwardJan 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University
SupervisorAnthony Colombo (Supervisor) & Paul Bywaters (Supervisor)

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