Can a Childhood Injury Affect My Mental Health as an Adult?
When you were a kid, did you ever wipe out on your bike? Fall off the roof? Or get in a car accident? Every kid takes a few tumbles in life—it’s part of growing up. But could an injury as a child or teen come back to haunt your mental health later in life? The answer is a resounding yes.
Take a look at Sadie, for example, who had been kicked in the head by a horse and lost consciousness when she was 10 years old. Fast forward to age 42, and Sadie often felt depressed, had memory issues, and had failed her sixth alcohol treatment program. She desperately wanted to stop drinking but couldn’t follow through with any of the program recommendations because she was so impulsive and her memory was poor. Whenever alcohol was around, she just couldn’t say no, and she couldn’t remember the sobriety strategies she was taught.
Neither she nor her family ever considered that her problems with substance abuse stemmed from that kick in the head from the horse. It never occurred to her that her brain might still carry the lingering effects from that accident. But a brain scan using a technology called SPECT showed severe damage to her prefrontal cortex (focus, forethought, judgment and impulse control) and temporal lobes (learning and memory) caused by that head injury she had long forgotten.
When Sadie saw her brain scan, it jarred her memory about the head injury and its aftermath. She remembered that her grades at school started to slip and that she became more rebellious at home. People treated her as though she was just a bad person, which made her feel sad and hopeless. She now realized how it all contributed to her problems as an adult.
This is critical to know considering approximately 812,000 young people under the age of 18 sought help in the emergency room for concussions or traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) in 2014, according to the CDC. Children up to age 4 and teens 15-19 years old—along with seniors who are 65 and over—are the most likely to experience a TBI. Understanding the potential consequences of a TBI can help children and teens prevent the devastating fallout.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE BRAIN IS INJURED?
Your brain is soft—about the consistency of soft butter, tofu, or custard—and housed in a very hard skull. With multiple sharp, bony ridges inside the brain can be easily damaged. Whiplash, blows to the head, blast injuries, and jarring motions (think shaken baby syndrome) can all cause the brain to slam into those sharp ridges. This can cause damage in a number of ways, including:
- Broken blood vessels and bleeding
- Increased pressure
- Lack of oxygen
- Damage to nerve cell connections
- Ripping open brain cells, spilling out proteins that cause inflammatory reactions
TBIs can also damage more than just the specific area of the brain where you smacked your head. In some cases, injuries can occur in both the front and back of the brain or on both sides. This is the result of a contrecoup injury, a common pattern in which the force of a blow causes the brain to move violently in the opposite direction, slamming into the opposite side of the skull and damaging that side of the brain as well.
In addition, because your pituitary gland (the body’s mast hormone regulator) lies in a vulnerable part of your skull, it is often damaged in head injuries. This can cause significant hormonal imbalances, which are linked to many symptoms of mental illness.
THE BRAIN INJURY-MENTAL ILLNESS CONNECTION
As Sadie’s story shows, TBIs can also lead to mental health problems. Few people know this, however, because most psychiatrists never look at the brain. TBI has been linked to:
- Panic attacks
- Memory problems
- Learning problems
- School failure
- Substance abuse
- Domestic violence
- Job failure
Finding relief from your symptoms can be difficult due to several factors. Many people, for instance, have no recollection of experiencing a head injury as a child, whether it was falling out of a tree, slipping in the shower, going through the windshield of a car, or having concussions from playing sports. And they certainly don’t connect the dots to the symptoms of anxiety, depression, ADHD, or PTSD they may be experiencing as an adult.
In addition, the typical treatments for these conditions don’t heal the underlying brain damage. Because of this, therapies can be ineffective, causing you to go from one treatment to another or from doctor to doctor in search of a solution.
HOW BRAIN IMAGING REVEALS PAST TBIs
For Sadie, seeing her brain scan helped her realize that her substance abuse issues, memory problems, and depression weren’t her fault. They were related to the head injury she had suffered more than three decades earlier. It also helped her understand why all those alcohol treatment programs, which can be so helpful for some people, didn’t work for her. Once she rehabilitated her brain, she was better able to follow the treatment strategies that helped her stay sober, fight off depression, and rescue her memory.
At Amen Clinics about 40% of our patients have experienced head injuries, but many of them have no recollection of suffering a concussion until they see the damage in their brain scan. Seeing the underlying biology of the brain allows us to create a personalized treatment plan that helps heal the brain while addressing other symptoms.
If you think head trauma may be contributing to your symptoms or if traditional treatment isn’t working for you, don’t wait to seek professional help. Schedule a visit today or call 888-288-9834.