Darren McGarvey – author of Poverty Safari and The Social Distance Between Us – began his new project, The Trauma-Industrial Complex, by delivering a Signature Lecture at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on Tuesday 30 April.

A man holding a microphone
Darren McGarvey ©Stewart Attwood 2024
A man looking at the screen of a cell phone
Darren McGarvey ©Stewart Attwood 2024
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The event, opened by RSE Chief Executive Professor Sarah Skerratt, also featured psychotherapist Miriam Taylor. The evening was an exploration of trauma and the notion of “lived experience”, as the conversation about mental health has surged in recent years, especially on social media. Speaking after the event Darren explained his thoughts about the importance of being aware of the tone of conversation about mental health online.

He said: “The eruption of trauma discourse online has encouraged me and also worried me because there are so many difficulties in life that we experience, and we want an answer for it, and in the absence of proper public services and resources, people are in a clinical vacuum where integrating quite a profound idea like trauma begins to become appealing.”

He added that there is a lot more work to be done to grapple with and understand your own trauma, including challenging your own perceptions of your experiences, which can be difficult. He recounts a brief conversation with his dad about an incident in his childhood and how the two recollections did not match up.

“Rather than being defensive about that or questioning him, I went away and thought about it. I thought ‘I wonder if I have remembered this differently’.

“A lot of the difficulties I have experienced in life, I have a very fixed idea of that incident – why it happened, what was the intent, all of the things that I have grafted on to the memories – but there is a very small possibility that there is a false memory in there. We are both in agreement about a certain moment in the incident and then there’s a divergence in interpretation.

“What that showed me was that the power of a narrative and a personal story has almost as much of an impact on you as the trauma.”

Darren cites academic literature on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as an example. Literature shows that abandonment, and the perception of abandonment, can have similar effects on children, and while circumstances may be different, a child’s interpretation and experience of an event is ultimately what matters.

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Darren McGarvey ©Stewart Attwood 2024

“We want to tell ourselves a story that is: one – as close to the truth as possible; and two – helps us heal as best as possible. Through my life I’ve held on to stories for all sorts of reasons and I’m just interested to get to the bottom of it and I hope it might help people who are in a place where they are sick of the story they tell themselves about things.”

Darren explained that the terminology about mental health has become more colloquial, and has bridged a gulf between people’s experience and the clinical language used to understand it.

“It’s really positive. People need language to describe their feelings, and ‘trauma’ becoming more of a word that is in colloquial circulation, that’s great, because so many words have been locked behind the medical ‘gate’, and when people use it colloquially people can infer what they mean when they say it.

“I’ve been part of a lived experience movement which has always been advocating about being trauma-informed, talking about the bodily impact of trauma, the corrosive role of chronic stress which can be part of a trauma response, so I’m really encouraged by the opening up of the discourse around this to the point where it’s not just people in lived experience, or doctors, or psychotherapists talking about it.

“This word is in play now, in a big, big way. It was the most Googled term in 2021.”

There are pitfalls too though, as Darren explained. For the average person who begins to engage in their own mental health on social media, there is more that needs to happen on top of taking the initial steps of speaking about experience. There is the need for an informed professional to begin to help understand what your experience means, and this can be lacking in a social media setting.

“Wherever there is mass interest in anything, there are other actors at play. If you go on Instagram and start lingering a little longer on certain content, the algorithm is going to start giving you more of it, and before you know it you start thinking trauma is everywhere and that you are under threat all the time. So there is something about the mechanics of social media where certain content creators are incentivized to produce certain types of content that appeal to their audience, but unfortunately to truly heal from trauma there should be something uncomfortable about it, there should be something discomforting about the experience of really going into it – so we end up in a trauma algorithm where it is all about affirming and validating us – that’s not therapy, that’s just awareness building, and that’s important but there has got to be a processing phase in treatment before the trauma is released, and a lot of people are stuck at awareness building phase where they are just consuming more and more information, being very selective about what they take.”

Miriam Taylor ©Stewart Attwood 2024

Darren added that there are dangers associated with sharing your story online, as it is wrapped up in the other issues that social media can create, and the desire to arrive at an end point and have the story come to a satisfactory conclusion.

“People are used to having it all wrapped up in a nice wee bow, but that’s not the reality of trauma,” he said.

Darren included a personal account of a traumatic childhood experience as a child in his first book Poverty Safari, however the book covered a range of other ground. He reflected on how he may approach the writing process differently given the experience he has now gained.

“This trauma discourse compels us to share, but it doesn’t say how we should share, what is the purpose of sharing? It only says that a catharsis will come when you tell the story of what happens to you. The truth is when the sharing is just the first act of getting a general picture of what you think has occurred into the world, so that someone with insight and guidance can begin to help you to begin to unpack it, to tell you what the story really is or to help you improve the story so that it is less painful.

“It is not dissuade people from sharing, it’s just to say that our impulse to share and the validation that we might receive from doing that is often so overwhelming that we don’t consider the consequences on the other side of it, and I feel that it is important enough culturally just now that someone has to warn people because just now all the signals people are getting is ‘just do a Facebook update’, and so on, and it’s all part of this full-disclosure culture that we are in.

“There is a reason why people say: ‘keep your powder dry’, there is a reason why some things should be kept behind closed doors. Not concealing it and sweeping it under the rug, but once you let something out into the public, it’s not yours anymore. It’s your most intimate, private experience, and you’re not healed, you’re going to feel very uncomfortable once you have done that.”

As a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Darren has written and spoken about complex and challenging issues. He explained that being able to focus on how other speakers, writers and public figures lay out their arguments has been a big influence on his own thinking.

He said: “Generally, a lot of the people who have influenced me over the years, it’s not necessarily what they’ve written about it’s just the way they’ve communicated. The thing that draws me to someone is how they are putting their idea across, it doesn’t really matter what their idea is about, I will become more interested if they communicate it effectively.

“So for me as someone who has not got the concentration to be an avid reader like an academic would have to be, social media has been a real gift because it gives me a chance to digest information and learn in ways that are better for me.

“Listening to people talk – clever people – who disagree with each other, listening to them is one of the best ways to gain an understanding of what the main issues are in play. How are they scrutinizing each other’s thought processes? How do they hold each other accountable? How do they hold themselves when they hear something they don’t like because it contradicts their perspective? How consistent are they?”

Mary Harris Jones et al. posing for the camera
L:R Miriam Taylor, Darren McGarvey, Sarah Skerratt ©Stewart Attwood 2024