Time to do Away with Trauma as a Cause of Schizophrenia.

By Marvin Ross

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I just read an excellent article in Psychology Today called Schizophrenia and Trauma: My parents did a great job, I still developed schizophrenia I highly recommend the article and it has spurred me on to refute once again the nonsense of trauma causing serious mental illness. Trauma is actually something that the parents and the families of those who are ill suffer with.

David has touched on this a couple of times and stated that

“People with psychotic illness do not need someone probing the wells of their psychic discomfort; they do not need (no matter how well-intended) a therapist scouring their childhood memories in search of an unhealed wound. They need support, safety, security, grounding,  and satisfying routine before they can get better. And good medical treatment.”

That actually happened to the person who wrote the article I recommended.

I also recommend a second blog that he did when he was criticized for his view that trauma does not cause serious mental illness.

Another recent good article on the topic just appeared in a UK paper by Alastair Kemp and Ruth Hunt called the Traumatic Power Struggle Within Mental Health. They argue that ideological differences are being used to cut services. If the problem is simply trauma and not biological then the sick need to take responsibility for their problems and their failure to get well. If they don’t, why give them government supports?.

Another good paper is by Dr Boris Vatel, a psychiatrist at the Indiana State Hospital in Evansville, IN called Unmasking trauma-informed care which appeared in Current Psychiatry Archives, October 9, 2015. He points out that:

trauma-informed care has no language for dividing pathology from normality and because everyone’s experience and pain are seen as equally “valid,” trauma-informed care actually trivializes severe trauma by placing it on par with experiences that objectively would be classified as merely unpleasant.

Now, if trauma causes serious mental illness, then I should have schizophrenia.

I don’t!

I grew up in Toronto as the child of poor, working class, Jewish immigrants at a time when Toronto was not the tolerant wonderful multi-cultural city it is today. Then, my father died when I was 10 and I had a number of serious medical problems. I remember my uncle taking me to a synagogue, introducing me to the sextant and telling me that he would look after me while I was there. I actually thought I was going to be living in the synagogue with this garlic smelling guy with the numbers tattooed on his arm. That was traumatic.

It turned out that I did not have to live there but no one told me that I would have to go to morning and evening prayers for a year to say the mourners prayer instead of playing with my friends (traumatic). The Rabbi partly saved me by telling me I did not have to come for morning prayers.

Allow me to look at all the people with schizophrenia and/or their families whose books I’ve published.

I am not so naive that I do not believe that prosperous, educated people do not abuse their kids or that their kids cannot suffer trauma but there was no trauma in these cases.

Susan Inman in Vancouver wrote After Her Brain Broke about her experiences with her daughter who developed schizophrenia. Susan was a teacher and her husband a university professor and there are no signs in her book that her daughter suffered any trauma. What was traumatizing for her daughter and for the family was the counselor they hired to help her daughter. The counselor was one of those who believed in the trauma theory, grilled the young lady on potential traumas she may have experienced and even set back the proper treatment by her actions.

Sandra Yuen MacKay (My Schizophrenic Life) developed schizophrenia at a fairly young age despite being in what seems to have been a loving Chinese-Canadian family. Her father was an architect and Sandra has gone on to become a very successful artist. She is the winner of the Courage to Come Back Award in Vancouver, one of the faces of mental illness in Canada, and exhibits her work in the Vancouver area. No signs of trauma.

Erin Hawkes-Emiru (When Quietness Came) came from the Maritimes and became sick while a student at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Her mother is a librarian and her father a university professor with the only signs of trauma being the trauma to Erin of having difficulty finding a medication that worked for her in her adventures with horrible psychosis from Dalhousie University to the University of British Columbia. I lost count of the number of times the police had to wrestle her into ambulances for another trip to the isolation ward.

Erin’s doctors finally found an anti-psychotic that worked; she completed her masters in neuroscience, is a peer counselor in Vancouver and speaks to conferences of families, doctors, nurses and others. She too is a Courage to Come Back winner.

The late Dr Carolyn Dobbins (What A Life Can Be) spent a childhood engaged in sports and was about to qualify for the US Ski Team at Lake Placid when she became ill. Carolyn did manage to get her PhD in psychology from Vanderbilt despite her illness and was a successful counselor for many years. She grew up initially in Colorado but then her family moved to Knoxville where her father was a practicing pediatrician. A childhood friend, Dave Kopel, wrote an extensive review of her book in his blog at the Washington Post

Carolyn mentions no trauma whatsoever in her childhood other than the trauma of her disease that severely impacted her life. Unfortunately, she passed away early but she lives on in her book which is still very popular.

There was also no trauma in the life of Sakeenah Francis (Loves All That Makes Sense) other than being African American in a racist society. Her parents were educated citizens in Cleveland and Sakeenah attended an African American University where she met and married her husband. It was after she married that she developed schizophrenia. She and her mother had differences when she was growing up but so do many people who did not develop an illness. Her family was incredibly supportive as so many families are. She was able to return the favour by helping look after her father when he developed Alzheimer’s.

The one person with schizophrenia whose story I’ve published is Paul Flannery (Shot in the Head) whose story and the history of the family was written by his sister. Paul developed schizophrenia in his mid-teens and never properly recovered for a host of reasons. This very large Irish American family was highly supportive and there is no indication of any severe trauma that might have triggered the disease as the trauma proponents claim. Paul’s twin did not develop the condition even though there is a high likelihood that twins will.

My own personal experiences also disprove the trauma theory but I have to comment on one of the stupid suggestions we got from a social worker and psychologist before the proper diagnoses. Seems my son was suffering from being in a family where there was too much love. We were stunned by that comment and still are today. And my son has told me how happy his childhood was. The day we were told the too much love story, my son admitted in the session that he had been using a lot of marijuana. As David pointed out in his blog “Involve Parents”, this is not unusual. Our son told us that we were pretty stupid not to have noticed and pointed out how he always cleared out the fridge when he got home from being out with friends.

Earlier this week, I met with the Alzheimer’s patient I am power of attorney for and with his new doctor. No one ever mentions trauma as a cause of Alzheimer’s which, like schizophrenia, is a disorder of the brain but with no therapeutic options unlike schizophrenia. As with schizophrenia, signs of paranoia are creeping into his symptoms.

The vast majority of parents stand by and support their kids and endure tremendous stress and often cost while doing so. As an example, when I was involved with the local chapter of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario, we had an annual golf day put on for us by the National Hockey League Old Timers. They were an incredible bunch of generous characters. One of our members, a fairly elderly woman, would stand at the 1st tee all day to lecture each foursome on schizophrenia and the importance of supporting us. It was a very hot day and she did not move to so much as get a drink or to pee for fear of missing a foursome.

Isn’t it about time we put this stupid theory into the garbage where it belongs.

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25 thoughts on “Time to do Away with Trauma as a Cause of Schizophrenia.

  1. I find this position so disturbing since there are so many studies linking early life trauma and the likelihood of developing of schizophrenia. When I say early life, I mean very early life, i.e. in utero, post-natal and the first few months of life. I will quote them in a later comment but the view that serious mental illness is a “broken brain” belies the evidence being report. And they are not, as Dr. Dawson said, poorly done studies or “data mining.”

    At the very least, schizophrenia is a multicausal disease, involving multiple genes, early life trauma/stress and environmental factors, including a bad in uteo environment.

    I will post some studies on a future comment. I just wanted to express my disappointment, Marvin, in your acceptance of this false view.

    Bruce Wilson
    Montreal, Quebec

    Liked by 1 person

  2. All the instances of trauma you mention are examples of LATER childhood trauma, well after the brain has developed its underlying affective pathways. It is EARLY trauma that is critical in serious psychosis; not always; but often. More later.

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  3. Popovic et al. “Childhood Trauma in Schizophrenia: Current Findings and Research Perspectives.” Front. Neurosci., 21 March 2019

    https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2019.00274/full

    “The neural diathesis-stress model proposes that psychosocial stress acts on a pre-existing vulnerability and thus triggers the symptoms of schizophrenia. Childhood trauma is a severe form of stress that renders individuals more vulnerable to developing schizophrenia; neurobiological effects of such trauma on the endocrine system and epigenetic mechanisms are discussed”

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  4. R. P. Bentall, S. Wickham, M. Shevlin, F. Varese. Do Specific Early-Life Adversities Lead to Specific Symptoms of Psychosis? A Study from the 2007 The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 2012

    Childhood trauma linked to schizophrenia. “Researchers at the University have found that children who experience severe trauma are three times as likely to develop schizophrenia in later life.”

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  5. Ruby E, et al. Influence of Early Trauma on Features of Schizophrenia. Early Interv Psychiatry. 2017 Aug; 11(4): 322–333.

    “These results suggest that early trauma and current stress impact features of schizophrenia, consistent with stress sensitization and increased dopamine activity for treatment refractory positive symptoms, as well as the cascade of increased morning cortisol, reduced brain volumes and depressive and deficit symptoms.”

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4580512/#!po=64.2857

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  6. Riley G, et al. Telomere length and early trauma in schizophrenia. Schizophr Res. 2018 Sep;199:426-430.

    “This data confirms the substantial excess of early trauma among schizophrenia cases. “

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  7. Mayo D, et al. Bullying and psychosis: The impact of chronic traumatic stress on psychosis risk in 22q11.2 deletion syndrome – a uniquely vulnerable population. J Psychiatr Res. 2019 Jul;114:99-104.

    “We propose an interactive relationship between trauma, stress, and increased psychosis risk among youth with 22q with a history of bullying. The early childhood experience of trauma in the form of bullying promotes an altered developmental trajectory that may elevate the risk for maladaptive functioning and subsequent psychotic disorders, particularly in youth with genetic vulnerabilities. Therefore, we conclude the experience of bullying among individuals with 22q should be more closely examined.”

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    1. On the other hand, going through the Sunday New York Times Book Review yesterday a title caught my eye.
      Mind fixers by Anne Harrington … I looked further she borrowed the title from Jon Franklin who got a Pulitzer prize in 1984 for a series of articles : The mind fixers.. .. the troubled search for the biology on mental illness. .. I haven’t yet read either book, or articles yet…

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    2. I’m sorry you are disappointed in me Bruce but you’ve known my position for quite some time and I predicted you would respond to this. You said “I mean very early life, i.e. in utero, post-natal and the first few months of life”. But surely you must know that for years, one of the main comments on schizophrenia was the schizophregenic mother and that has not really gone away. Many in the “helping” professions are still convinced that mothers and families are a large part of the problem. And this has morphed into some trauma or event like child and/or sexual abuse may have caused this illness. That is what families rail against with justification. It s a lingering and pervasive view that mitigates against providing proper treatment.

      But even though you talk bout in-utero and very early experiences, you provide the last bit of research that talks about bullying in a very specific subset of people with a deletion syndrome. And this is a hypothesis only as the authors “propose” and then state this should “be more closely examined”. Not very definitive proof is it? And who has not been bullied? I was and a lot of others have been and have not developed a serious mental illness.

      You really need to understand where families are coming from. The trauma hypothesis may make for interesting discussions among academics but is of no value for families and is hatefu.

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      1. Thanks Marvin for the article here. sadly family blaming is likely on the rise. Does no one ask this man and others, why the incidence of Schizophrenia more or less remains the same worldwide. That surely should tell part of the story. And why do so many, who have been traumatized beyond anything imaginable… not develop a major psychosis.

        It’s likely the DNA stupid. My nursing days half a century ago taught me that mother’s childrearing methods cannot and do not cause serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Mothers have many powers, but they would have to be powerful beyond imagination to create such a brutal illness! Wilson had better think it out again. He is cherry picking his papers.

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      2. There is a rational explanation for why there would be a relationship between bullying and later onset of serious neuropsychiatric illness. Bullies most likely target those who exhibit unusual or neural-atypical social behaviors.

        Traumatologists also like to cite high correlates between childhood abuse and psychosis. (reference “ACE SCORES”) Again, an ideology-driven confirmation bias. In families with a history of SNI, you see spectrum issues, chief among them being hypereligiosity…with its attendant abusive behaviors in some people. The correlation is not cause and effect of abuse. The correlation is a pre-existing genetic risk stemming from parentage that is showing neurobehavioral signs of those same genetics.

        I recommend taking a look at the absolutely ridiculous panel of questions on ACE questionnaires – for anyone who is in agreement with the blogger.

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      3. My son has schizophrenia. He had a happy childhood and there was no trauma there. He has anosognosia and blames me for his repeated hospitalisations and the fact that he has to take anti-psychotic medications. It breaks my heart to hear him speak negatively against me. I have been a mental health nurse for more than thirty years and it is highly insulting to me when his mental health workers refuse to acknowledge me or involve me in his care because of his delusional thought processes. Its just mommy blaming in yet another guise and the trauma informed model is another way to distance and blame family members who truly care about their sons and daughters. My son would be living on the street eating out of garbage cans if I hadn’t been involved in his life despite the dismissive attitudes displayed by his mental health team. I will never give up on him and will never blame mothers or fathers for causing this wretched disease.

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      4. It’s not about parent blaming, Marvin, and if people are doing that, then they are hateful. But data is data and you can’t just brush this research aside as anomalous. The evidence is growing that childhood trauma, especially early trauma increases the risk of serious psychotic disoders by as much as three times? Why do you deny that?

        Parents should never be blamed for any mental illness their children fall prey to and that includes trauma disorders. Often the parents don’t even know they are traumatizing their kids by doing such things as allowing the baby to be taken away from them at birth (thankfully, a thing of the past), or keeping them apart from the mother in a crib, or any of a number of situations where attachment trauma exists. It’s the old stress-diasthesis model and it makes sense.

        Here’s another one in the prestigious Schizophrenia Bulletin.

        https://academic.oup.com/schizophreniabulletin/article/43/1/180/2503465

        Traumatic Stress Disorders and Risk of Subsequent Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorder or Bipolar Disorder: A Nationwide Cohort Study

        Niels Okkels Betina Trabjerg Mikkel Arendt Carsten Bøcker Pedersen. Schizophrenia Bulletin, Volume 43, Issue 1, 1 January 2017, Pages 180–186,

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  8. As a parent of an adult chilld with psychosis, I find the comments of Bruce Wilson very troubling. All the research he has dug up talks about trauma and the average reader would surmise that the trauma is caused by parental abuse. Marvin’s article gave examples of how perfectly reasonable people who have clearly not abused their child can have adult children with a psychotic illness. Parents, like myself, live lives of hyper vigilance wondering when the next unusual behaviour will occur. This can happen even with the very best of medical support. As one mother just said to me this week end, “No-one understands our experience”. Most of the people in the support group I facilitate suffer from PTSD because they have had to deal with untreated psychosis and know that in the future they will probably have to deal with untreated psychosis again. We are constantly on pins and needles and there is little adequate supportive housing where our loved ones can go! Some parents do not want to talk about their experiences as they do not want to retraumatize themselves. We interface with a health care system that is dismissive of our input possibly because they have the implicit belief that somehow we parents caused the illness in the first place. Parents are left unprepared for the journey that they embark as they do not get education about psychosis, or adequate support which would include acknowledgement of our work, financial help, and respite care, They do, however, get a lot of judgements. Comments like yours, Mr. Wilson will only help to embed that hurtful experience further. A lot of “mental health professionals” do not know the symptoms of psychosis and react to our loved ones in a literal sense not recognizing that they are observing psychotic behaviour which adds to our difficulties. People such as yourself, Mr. Wilson, need to look up from your silos and regard the whole picture before making comments.

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    1. If parents are assuming that they are the cause of the trauma and thus the psychotic syndrome, then healthcare givers need to assure them that it is usually NOT THEIR FAULT! To ignore data like this because it makes the parents feel bad is just putting your head in the sand.

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      1. I am not assuming that I am the cause of the trauma.The term that you use “Health care providers” covers a wide spectrum of people: psychiatrists, nurses, social workers etc. Not many of them have been interested in talking to me except to offer an unfair judgement or criticism. And usually, because they have not listened to me preventable unfortunate outcomes have happened.

        Far too many health care providers do not even know the symptoms of psychotic illness especiallly those in the Recovery Movement whose views dominate the field. This movement does not recognize a symptom of psychosis called “anosognosia” (lack of insight that they have an illness) so many of our loved ones do not get help from a community agency because the “service” that they offer is voluntary. Our loved ones are at risk of homelessness, incarceration and death. We now have a humanitarian crisis that could be preventable if more people listened to families.

        There is a lot wrong with the current “mental health system” and we families who advocate are up against attitudinal barriers, unrealistic privacy legislation, and outright ignorance informed hostility and malice. Given the experience of families, it is not responsible to list of a bunch of papers about early childhood trauma without qualifying it as you are contributing to a greater problem.

        I would welcome you to come and help us out. All that zeal that you put into finding all these research papers could be put to better use supporting families who struggle hard every day to get the very best for their adult children. Look up Harriet Lefley for starters. She wrote an incredible book called Famiy Caregiving in Mental Illness.

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  9. Yes it is time to ignore those who have an agenda and want to preach that family trauma is causal in a psychosis . There are a lot of folks out there who do just that . And there are a lot of professionals( particularly in sociology ) who want to add to the burden of families with their opinionated nonsense. They add to the burden that families must bear. Most families lovingly cope with forms of mental illness that are arguably some of the worst forms of illness that mankind must put up with. Until the biology is better understood, people like the frequent commenter will persist with his hurtful dogma.

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    1. That is a very unreasonable attitude, Patricia. No one is “preaching” here. This is science!! These are not sociologists; they are psychiatric researchers! You remind me of the doctors who ridiculed Ignaz Semmelweis when he told them that they had to wash their hands to avoid childbed fever. Or the doctors who continued to do surgeries on babies without anesthesia because they believed that infants could not feel pain. It was only “reflex.” You’re stuck in an old paradigm.

      You don’t want to believe it because it is “hurtful dogma.” This is not the schizophrenogenic mother hypothesis; this is not psychoanalysis, this is modern day trauma science. There is no reason to be hurt.

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  10. I am going to link to your article on my own website. I actually think that the ideologies that I call “traumatology” are odd beliefs, and as such, are representative of spectrum issues. I think that some people have certain cognitive deficits that make it very difficult to impossible for them to properly conceptualize the biological basis of serious neuropsychiatric illness (SNI). Many of those who believe in traumagenesis of psychosis have tried to reckon with the biological/heritable basis with what I regard as confabulations.

    Confabulation is a facet of anosognosia (the transient or chronic neurological cognitive blockade that prevents some victims of SNI from recognizing that that they suffer from dysmentation and behavioral dysfunction as a product of a brain function disorder). The confabulating brain is not lying or engaging in deception when odd beliefs and utterances are made – instead, it is the brain trying to answer questions or resolve problems while it is deprived of certain faculties. The traumatologists reconcile with the biological basis with constructs like biopsychosocial (a broadly accepted reconciliation accepted by a vast number of credentialed professionals who are spectrum-disordered), transgenerational trauma (epigenetics), etc. I suspect that there might be attenuated forms of anosognosia as a spectrum condition.

    I would go further than the premise of this article and assert that the diagnosis of Schizophrenia itself should be replaced. Sz is the generic diagnosis tagged on someone for whom differential diagnosis (if, hopefully, it was performed) did not uncover an “underlying medical disorder”. Sz is often contrasted as a primary psychiatric disorder vs medical disorders in medical literature – very unfortunate. I believe that Sz should be classified as a chronic, heritable idiopathic encephalopathy – encephalopathy by its most fundamental definition. I try to avoid calling Sz, Bipolar, and clinical “depression” (another deeply problematic term) “mental illness” unless I feel it’s prudent for the sake of clear communication.

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  11. Anne Harrington is professor of the history of science at Harvard. She begins by saying that pschchiatrists do not have to wait until their patients die to look at their brains.. she also says that they should pick up wher Kraepelin left off.. ( Charcot was also interested in biology tl he invited Freud to speak ,)

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  12. I personally did not take Mr. Wilson’s comments as blaming parents for the psychosis of their children, rather that a trauma can occur during gestation or birth that could lead to psychosis. A trauma of the baby brain in utero is biologic and i would think could easily upset the brain chemistry. A complicated delivery, also causing trauma could affect the baby coping ability in later years. I’ve read that John Hinckley Jr. (who came from a good loving family) who shot Pres. Reagan had as a baby suffered severe blood loss at the delivery. His mother said the hospital neglected to tell them of the problem then. She attributed John’s personality disorder growing up to his traumatic beginnings, despite their efforts to give him their love and a secure home. I think it is a shame that a family would be blamed when they try their best to nurture their mentally ill children. I do not think Mr. Wilson was insinuating that parents were directly at fault abusing their children, but that a trauma may have occurred, by whatever means, accident or sickness of the mother or other misfortune in the womb or at birth.

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  13. I spent many years around hospital care in the UK and was a monitor of mental health service delivery for 10 years .. Frankly I was astonished at how many people I met with psychosis who had been subject to mistreatment as children , rapes or abuses , or early “care” that did not meet their needs ….I am talking hundreds of people … However it’s not productive to “blame all parents” rather its more productive to look at subtle or painful socialisation processes in all. It’s good to hear out stories of denials of early experience too narrated by patients themselves where families convince themselves little happened that was painful….

    My personal story was dramatic – powerful and mind distorting across life – my birth mother separated from me several times put my sister and I into a Children’s Home , fought my father till he attempted suicide and split my sister and I up .. Giving me finally to a set of extended family numbskulls who could barely write or read, to adopt, who sexually/emotionally abused me …All before the age of 6 …I found I had a hell of a fragmented soul to mend in long therapy facing pain and losses I was not even allowed to voice …I would not wish that fragmentation on anyone … It was like living inside broken glass for a perceptual framework at times. In therapy I came through splitting mind states to integrate the losses of mother and father because of the adoption ..

    Families sadly will often want to idealise and explain away sad underlying pains they continue in stories that do try to comfort ..Those are often internalised too in patients until the deeper stories come out . I’ve seen it and heard it inside Group Therapy right inside the NHS UK system ..I lived on Group therapy wards twice.. It’s clear to me so many people hospitalized are walking wrecks of their early lives yet some of it at least seems more to do with an area of awkward birth or even some genetic area of influence … But look, in the UK no-one as a patient ever got the serious legally backed choice to make a therapy budget portable so a culture could form of true “Patient Choice” .. So those with trauma and felt they had trauma-caused-fragmentation could do the work they needed to do resolving it all in therapy with grief and crying …I set up free art groups for years to help people with psychotic problems and early trauma trashed lives … They used to tell me about their lives because they felt so supported ..

    The Morning Star reference I appreciated partly, because it has partly shown how social engineering in the NHS UK has created no serious patient power but an insidious colonialisation of mis-matching ideas/arrangements that simply stay away from the main issue of historically caused shattered lives ….. Psychosis – fragmentation of the Self , remains a key issue for which there must be choices of treatment and Patients need to lead that story out of a pure chemical text to one of trauma if they feel it fits …

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  14. Many thanks to Marvin Ross for continuing to shine a light on the dark underside of the trauma theories.

    Although people with schizophrenia do better if their families stay involved, the families have to deal with a mental health system that too often treats them as adversaries. Taxpayers should be concerned that this large unpaid workforce of family caregivers is actively discouraged from providing the support that is needed. We need massive retraining of the workforce who deal with families – and we don’t need them to spend time on the latest incarnation of parent blaming. They are already steeped in these destructive theories.

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