Sixty percent of adults report difficult childhood experiences, including drawn-out divorces, violence, and abuse. The effects of trauma are long-lasting, ranging from anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder to physical illness.
But according to Dr. Gabor Mate, focusing solely on the role of family in childhood trauma misses the bigger picture. What if trauma also results from a shortcoming on the part of society to support families in thriving? If society helped informed teachers and parents meet children’s basic human needs for attachment and connection, would we produce fewer traumatized adults?
Mate focuses much of his therapeutic work on the healing of trauma, exploring the role of adverse childhood experiences in leading to addiction and other suffering later in life. He is the bestselling author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and his work has garnered international attention and a dedicated following.
We caught up with Mate, who lives in Vancouver, for a conversation at CIIS in San Francisco. Research has discovered what we all need in order to connect and flourish, he argues, but society isn’t putting this knowledge into practice—which puts us all at risk.
Jenara Nerenberg: Can you explain your thinking around the “myth of normal?”
Gabor Mate: I think normalcy is a myth. The idea that some people have pathology and the rest of us are normal is crude. There’s nothing about any mentally ill person—and it doesn’t matter what their diagnosis is—that I couldn’t recognize in myself. The reality is that, in every case, mental illness is an outcome of traumatic events. And by trauma I don’t mean dramatic events. There’s a difference.
Fundamentally, it has to do with whether human needs are being met or not. Since we live in a society that largely denies human developmental needs—doesn’t even understand them, let alone provide for them—you’re going to have a lot of people affected in adverse ways. Most of the population, in fact. And so then to separate out those who meet the particular criteria for a particular diagnosis from the rest of us is utterly unscientific and unhelpful.
More to the point, you need to look at what is it about our society that generates what we call abnormality?
JN: So, for example, how do you view something like autism?
GM: We have to realize that, whatever’s going on, it can’t be some genetic “problem” because genes don’t change in a population over 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, or even 300 years. So, whatever is going on, it is not genetically determined. It may be biological, but it’s not genetic, because we can’t reduce biology down to genetics.
In fact, human biology and human neurobiology are interpersonal. The brain is a social organ, and it’s affected by the environment, and particularly it’s affected by the psycho-emotional environment. So, then you have to ask: What might be happening in society that might be affecting infants and children?
JN: What’s your answer to that question? What leads to trauma in our society?
GM: The essence of trauma is disconnection from ourselves. Trauma is not terrible things that happen from the other side—those are traumatic. But the trauma is that very separation from the body and emotions. So, the real question is, “How did we get separated and how do we reconnect?”
Because that’s our true nature—our true nature is to be connected. In fact, if that wasn’t our true nature, there would be no human beings. The human species—or any species—could not evolve without being grounded in their bodies. You couldn’t have a bunch of intellectuals walking around out there in the wild, wondering in an abstract sense about the meaning of life, when there’s a saber-toothed tiger lurking behind the next bush.
It’s not an automatic outcome of living in the world that we should become disconnected. It’s a product of a certain way of life and a certain way of parenting and certain childhood experiences, where it becomes too painful to stay connected so disconnection becomes a defense.
JN: Is there any research that is grabbing your attention right now?
GM: Well, there is this field of neuropolitics, where they look at how people’s political views are affected by their brain functioning, but they haven’t put that together with the child development research yet. They could do a lot of work on why people are resistant to reality.
Take the simple case of climate change, which is beyond controversy in the mind of anybody who is halfway rational. The human role in rapid climate change is frightening—the widening gap between ice floes in Antarctica, the melting of the polar ice caps, the rising of the seas. What world do you have to live in not to be concerned about those things or not to recognize that they exist?
Or take drug policy and the so-called war on drugs. You don’t need one more bit of research to show how harmful, pig-headedly wrong, and devastatingly costly that is in human terms. So, do we need research on why the research is not being implemented? No, we know the reason—powerful forces in our society benefit from it. So it’s not a failure at all. From their point of view, it’s a great success.
Same with climate change. Powerful interests benefit in the short-term, and they think in the short-term. They benefit from the economic dividends of industries that threaten the climate. It’s a political and social question, not a scientific question. Science exists within a social, political, and economic context. Who makes policy? Who influences policy? Who presents information to the public? Who controls those institutions?
JN: So, as a society and as individuals, what is the way back to wholeness?
GM: It’s impossible under capitalism, because the essence of capitalism is to separate the mind from the body. And, basically, people are all considered material goods. People matter only insofar as they produce, consume, or own matter. If you don’t produce, consume, or own matter, then you don’t matter in this society. We have to recognize the severely prohibitive limitations along with the great achievements of this particular way of life. It’s not a matter of providing some utopian prescription.
On a personal level, it’s a matter of deep self-work. One thing we’ve done now is we’ve had a lot of brilliant, necessary research about what trauma is and how it shows up in the form of physical and mental illness and alienation and disconnection from other people and from yourself. And a lot of work has been done on the reversal of trauma and the healing of it—and also on the prevention of it. But, again, we are not applying that knowledge.
Medical students and psychiatrists, for example, never learn that stuff. Most physicians don’t even hear the word “trauma” in their education and they have no understanding of it. Every time they see somebody with an autoimmune disease or mental illness, they’re looking at somebody who’s traumatized, but they don’t realize that. So therefore we deal with only with the physical manifestations, but not the actual causes.
So, to move forward, we have to have a society that is formed by the research that is already extant. So that anyone who deals with children needs to know the simple facts about the importance of relationality and brain development, and teachers need to be much more involved in relational activity with their students than in getting facts across. Because the curious, motivated brain will want to know the facts spontaneously and then they’re easier to teach. But when kids are troubled and alienated because their relational needs have not been met, and you try to hammer facts in their heads, it’s impossible.
So, the educational system needs to change and the medical system needs to change. How young families are supported needs to change. The barbarism of American policy around maternity leave has to change.
I was going to say it’s not “brain science,” but actually it is brain science! It’s very straightforward. Even under this system, there are a lot of things that could be done and the only question is, “Why aren’t they being done?”
Why aren’t they being done?