Understanding the Impact of Complex Trauma on Men’s Health


As we approach International Men’s Health Week on 10-16 June, it is critical to highlight the silent epidemic of complex trauma experienced by men and boys in our society, and its crippling cost.

Complex trauma – repeated ongoing often extreme experiences of abuse, neglect and violence – is common and not only is it common, but its impacts are often very damaging. The research around complex trauma is current and compelling, and yet as a society, we repeatedly fail to act.

Much complex trauma stems from childhood. The Australian Child Maltreatment Study (2021) found that 3 in 10 people over the age of 16 had experienced child sexual abuse – one third were males and 78% had been sexually abused more than once. About 3 in 10 had experienced emotional abuse from a parent/caregiver, 80% over years. About 1 in 11 had been neglected, 75% over years. 2 in 5 (40%) had been exposed to domestic violence, with 32% reporting more than 50 incidents. 2 in 3 children who were maltreated experienced more than one type of maltreatment, 2 in 5, two types, 1 in 4, 3-5 types.

The fact is that the research shows that complex trauma from childhood in males is far more common than we acknowledge. Trauma in childhood can affect the developing brain and the way a child and the adult engages or doesn’t engage with themselves, others and the world. The Australian Burden of Disease Study 2018 estimated that child abuse and neglect was the 2nd leading risk factor for mental health and injury for males aged 0–14 and the 3rd leading risk factor for males aged 15–44 (AIHW 2021). This is a public health crisis of mammoth proportions – bigger than Covid-19 ongoing and insidious.

While it is challenging for anyone with the lived and living experience of violence, abuse and neglect to speak out, males have a range of additional barriers to disclosing and seeking help.

The pervasive concept of masculinity is of men being stoic, independent and tough. This flies in the face of the vulnerability needed to acknowledge, to ourselves and, to others the reality of having been victimised. The fact is that vulnerability is a feature of being human, regardless of our gender. The shame and self-blame many survivors feel, as well as the stigma and judgement of societal norms compound the challenges for men in coming forward. The fear of not being believed is alive for all survivors but more so for men as is the pervasive myth that only men are perpetrators and only women are victims.

It is not only difficult for men to come forward but, when they do, they can find it hard to find services which are particular to their needs, accessible and relevant.

The reality is that often, instead of practitioners recognising and addressing the underlying trauma, men’s surface presentations are treated without considering the trauma which underpins them. Men are often pathologised for the ways they have tried to cope with experiences no-one and especially not a child should have to experience.

The Australian Child Maltreatment Study found that people maltreated as a child were more than twice as likely to experience a mental health disorder, over 6 times more likely to be dependent on cannabis and 4.6 times more likely to have made a suicide attempt in the last 12 months. These are but a few of the statistics which don’t even begin to tell the story of the daily life struggles of men in high performing jobs, homeless men, celebrities, men in prison, sports stars, men unable to work – fathers, husbands, sons.

This Men’s Health Week, let’s get real and tell it how it is. Let’s talk about the public health crisis of complex trauma. Let’s advocate for services which understand and provide support. Let’s shatter the silent epidemic which prevents hope and healing.

Related: Talking about Trauma


Dr. Cathy Kezelman AM is a medical practitioner, President of Blue Knot Foundation, Deputy Chair of National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse and has a lived and living experience of complex trauma. Cathy is a respected thought and transformational not-for-profit leader, an innovative strategic thinker and inspirational people manager, informed by strong governance and ethical decision-making principles.

She has been a driving force within Blue Knot, previously ASCA, for over 2 decades, spearheading the growth and maturity of a financially sustainable, accountable and credible organisation respected by government and diverse stakeholders which delivers on its purpose daily. She has held a number of board and key representative roles within the mental health and related sectors, all focussed on the healing and recovery of people with the lived and living experience of complex trauma. Cathy is an authority in the field, co-author of a range of seminal Blue Knot publications and guidelines, and strong communicator as a national advocate for trauma-informed transformational change and informed responsiveness to people experiencing the impacts of complex trauma.

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