Adverse Childhood Experiences

Mad, bad, or victim? (part 2)

The first part of this article explored how we label people and their behaviors as mad (mental health issues) or bad (criminal offenses). Although such labels can be useful for prevention, treatment, and containment of those who are a danger to themselves and/or others, labeling also has serious downsides. And importantly, it tends to simplify a complex issue and put the sole responsibility on the shoulders of people who are struggling in some way or another. In fact, in the personal stories of people experiencing mental health issues and offending behaviors, you often find a large number of traumatic events and circumstances. So what if those we see as either mad or bad were actually victims of traumatizing childhoods? What if they were the symptom of a wider problem?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Psychologists have defined 10 to 14 types of such traumatic events or circumstances that could happen to children under 18, called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and which have been demonstrated to have a long-term detrimental effect on behaviors, mental and physical health.

Most people tend to have at least one ACE. However, almost a third of worldwide adult mental health issues can be traced back to several ACEs. And the vast majority of the adult offender population has also experienced ACEs. The more ACEs people have, the more likely they have ever served a sentence in a young offender institution – stuck in the vicious circle of ‘badness’.

ACEs at the core

ACEs show how mental health and offending can be intertwined, with distress and suffering at their core. It also shows that it’s not individuals’ problems, they are not mad or bad just out of the blue. They are often victims of their circumstances, of a lack of support and tools for resilience, and they are often stigmatized early on, which makes it harder to turn their life around. When life beats you down, no wonder you get so bruised.

Family struggles

And we can’t even blame families for being dysfunctional and creating these ACEs. When analyzing which families are at risk, we can see that there is also a favorable ground for a household to be traumatic, neglectful, or abusive. Financial difficulties and poverty have a large impact on a child’s wellbeing. It tends to create accumulated stress and depression and increases mental health issues for parents, which in turn creates ACEs. To make things worse, these all have an impact on the developing brain of children, especially on the part regulating emotions. (You can watch this very informative TED talk from Dr. Nadine Burke Harris: How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime.)

The family’s income itself isn’t necessarily the issue, but rather the consequences and environment of low income on mental health and offending behavior of parents and their children. Poverty and income inequality are linked to:

– low parental education
– community violence
– lower educational opportunities
– lower job quality and security
– loneliness
– lower quality housing or even homelessness
– stigma and discrimination
– and less access to health services and support.

Predictable is preventable

We know for a fact that these issues of mental health and offending are largely influenced by wider social, cultural, and economic factors. And therefore, prevention and resilience must be built at all levels, individual, family, and community. All of us, members of society must support change by:

  • safeguarding mental health, social justice and fairness
  • ensuring financial and employment security are represented in every public policy
  • creating supportive environments and communities
  • developing personal skills
  • and reorganizing health services and research.

ACEs are predictable, people suffering is preventable to some extent, protective childhood experiences (PCEs) can be developed and offered by society, by communities, by individuals in contact with children. And yet, we still point fingers at those who do not fit in society, because of their mental health or their offending behaviors. We judge people for being ‘mad’ or ‘bad’. The media is full of stories of those going astray, those compensating for how they are truly feeling deep down, those struggling to handle their emotions. We talk a lot about violent or abusive parents who were abused as children. But we hear very little, if at all, about those who suffered awful childhoods and live decent and healthy lives, and who don’t perpetuate abuse.

What can we do?

As someone who survived several ACEs, and turned her life around, I am of course convinced that we each have the power to fight our individual odds. In fact, there is much scientific evidence that resilience, self-esteem, social competence, healthy attachments can be learned and developed. For those who identify in ACEs, it matters to know that you shouldn’t wait to be saved by society or anyone, save yourself, learn resilience. Healing is possible. Transcending painful experiences is a beautiful thing.

However, as someone sensitive to (and horrified by) social injustice, I also believe it is unfair to place on people’s shoulders the full responsibility to change or ignore their circumstances, traumas, and limitations when those are often caused by larger societal issues. If you have been lucky enough to be spared from so much pain and trauma, cultivate your empathy. Challenging these ‘mad’ or ‘bad’ labels is in your hands. Being kind, empathetic, and curious about someone’s existence doesn’t mean we accept their inappropriate behaviors. It means that we see the greater picture, that the struggling soul is the symptom of a wider problem that also needs to be addressed. And we can all support social change.

Every single one of us has a duty to open our perspective and help make society fairer and more caring of all its members.

How do you cultivate your resilience and empathy?

Asmussen K, Fischer F, Drayton E and McBride T (2020) Adverse childhood experiences – What we know, what we don’t know, and what should happen next [Online]. Available at
Creaney S (2012) ‘Targeting, labelling and stigma: challenging the criminalisation of children and young people’, Criminal Justice Matters, Vol. 89, No.1, pp. 16-17.
Friedli L (2009) Mental health, resilience and inequalities [Online]. Available at
Mental Health Foundation (2020) Tackling social inequalities to reduce mental health problems: How everyone can flourish equally [Online]. Available at
Vaswani N (2018) Adverse Childhood Experiences in children at high risk of harm to others. A gendered perspective [Online]. Available at
Vossler A, Havard C, Pike G, Barker M-J and Raabe B (2017) Mad or Bad? A Critical Approach to Counselling and Forensic Psychology, London, Sage.
WHO (2019) Mental health: Fact sheet [Online]. Available at

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Mad, bad, or victim? (part 1)

November 14, 2021

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Obstacles in life: break or feed your growth?

December 2, 2021
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