The stress of the past, lives on

Unity | Faculty for Social Wellbeing’s latest data on the stressful events that can define our life shows how our future decisions can be conditioned by traumatic moments experienced from an early age

File photo
File photo

Stress in life comes aplenty. But how long does it take for us to realise that the decisions that conditioned so many of life’s turns might have been conditioned by past, unresolved traumas?

In a far-reaching survey of the different traumas that can affect human beings, the Faculty for Social Wellbeing has tracked a host of life events that caused stress at childhood or in adulthood, and asked respondents to which degree this had affected their lives.

The study provides data on stressful life events that concern schooling, problems at work, troublesome relationships, death, addictions, abuse, abortion, miscarriages, experiences in Court and imprisonment, to mention just a few.

The survey for example finds shocking statistics for bullying, evidence of a pervasive issue that continues to plague communities. 13.8% said they had experience bullying “that led to making an official complaint or changing schools”, of which one in two respondents sustained such stressful events well over three times. Stress levels were rated high (5) for 30%, with 45% adding these events caused psychological problems in their present-day life.

“While physical scars may fade over time, the social and particularly the psychological effects of bullying can linger, leaving deep emotional wounds,” said Prof. Ruth Falzon (Department of Counselling).

“The findings are a stark reminder of the prevalence of bullying in our society and how, as a community, we do not seem to be able to stop it. Whether in schools, workplaces, and in our new reality online, bullying remains a persistent problem that demands urgent attention.”

The data particularly illustrates the profound impact bullying can have on individuals’ mental well-being and social interactions. “The emotional trauma inflicted by bullying can last a lifetime. Victims often experience feelings of isolation, low self-esteem, and depression, which can significantly affect their relationships, academic and work/career performance, and overall quality of life.”

PhD candidate in criminology Gail Debono, a psychologist, however points out that many people before the current generation, probably did not report their bullying, nor would they have changed school because of it.

“Had they been asked whether they had been bullied, the result would be reversed. Also, from the ones who admit to being bullied, the percentage of people affected ‘somewhat’ or ‘very strongly’ are very high, most especially when you see that respondents who said the bullying had not affected them at all, are also a large number who never made the connection between their personality traits and the bullying they suffered.

“Sometimes people only realise this when they go to therapy, even if they’re in their 60s,” Debono says – she mentions as example, people who are mistrustful of friends or colleagues. “Some go through their entire lives not knowing that bullying affected their life the way it did. The percentage of ‘somewhat’ and ‘very strongly’ is much higher, I can assure you!”

Prof. Falzon adds that the data shows that society cannot afford to ignore the damaging effects of bullying. “We must take proactive measures to create safer and more inclusive environments where bullying is not tolerated. This requires a concerted effort from policymakers, educators, parents, and communities to implement robust anti-bullying policies, promote empathy and respect, and foster a culture of kindness and acceptance. Restorative justice may be the way forward here.

“Ultimately, by confronting the issue of bullying head-on and providing adequate support to those affected – bully and victim – we can work towards building a society where everyone feels valued, respected, and safe. Only then can we truly mitigate the devastating social and psychological consequences of bullying and create a brighter future for generations to come.”


Addiction is another of the stressful life events traced by the Faculty’s survey, which shows concerning insights into addiction’s grip on the community, affecting 3.9% of respondents – notably among those who finished with secondary and post-secondary education.

“This challenges the assumption that higher education guards against addiction, suggesting instead that educational attainment does not immunise individuals from such struggles,” says Dr Maris Catania.

“With addiction events averaging three occurrences per person and a stress level of 3.24 out of 5 during the most impactful instance, the data reveals a troubling cycle of stress and addiction.”

Nearly 30% of participants reported strong physical and social impacts, while a significant 47.1% experienced severe psychological consequences, highlighting addiction’s pervasive and enduring harm.

“This pattern suggests a deep-seated issue within the Maltese community, cutting across educational lines and demanding a revaluation of prevention and support strategies,” Catania adds.

Catania said the findings call for a nuanced approach to addiction, recognizing its complexity beyond educational achievement. “The stark data on its long-term physical, social, and psychological repercussions emphasises the need for comprehensive public health initiatives and targeted intervention programmes, aiming to break the cycle of addiction and mitigate its widespread impacts in Malta.”


The same survey also finds an average 3.7% of respondents saying they had experienced the stressful event of an abortion – 4.2% of the female respondents had experienced the termination of a pregnancy, while 3.2% of male respondents were presumably partners.

While the percentage appears very small, the finding comes as no surprise to Prof. Marcelline Naudi (Department of Gender of Sexualities), who says the social taboo of abortion – still a criminal offence in Malta – means people are not comfortable disclosing information about such events.

The data for the stress levels experienced by this cohort however requires a more illustrative picture, Prof. Naudi says. “If we look at the stress levels experienced in this sample, we see about a quarter who felt no stress at all; something between 1/7th to 1/8th felt a lot of stress, with the rest somewhere in between… what we can say is that for some people, terminating a pregnancy is stressful, and for others it isn’t.”

Termination of a pregnancy is obviously a very gendered experience: in this case the data is not broken down by gender. “We also do not have a gender breakdown in relation to the physical, social or psychological impact on their lives today,” Prof. Naudi says.

“What we can note however is that in each area – physical, social, psychological – the largest group felt no impact. Unfortunately, whilst it does give us some information in relation to age, education and locality of those who felt comfortable disclosing that they or a partner had terminated a pregnancy, in relation to experiencing stress as a result of termination, this study tells us very little.”

Survey objectives

The survey illustrates a variety of stressful life events and their impact upon respondents, providing data that helps scholar understand how such events are perceived and processed by sufferers.

The objectives of the study were to investigate the prevalence and frequency of stressful life experiences across the lifespan of a representative sample of the Maltese population and the perceived level of physical, social and psychological stress generated by these events.

“Understanding the relationship between stressful life experiences and physical and mental wellbeing is important for public health planning and resource allocation,” said Dr Anna Grech, lecturer in psychology at the Faculty for Social Wellbeing, said on the results of the survey.

“It is also crucial for the promotion of effective trauma informed preventative measures and treatment strategies. This study helps identify groups that are more susceptible to the negative effects of stress, enabling the development of targeted interventions to support these populations.”

The empirical data is part of the Faculty’s continued service to scholars, students, PhD candidates and the social sector for evidence-based research. “It is incredible how past traumas or stressful circumstances have an imprint on our lives. This research indicates the impact trauma has on people’s lives and subsequent decision-making,” said Prof. Andrew Azzopardi, Dean of the Faculty.

Unity Gazzetta is a collaboration between MaltaToday and the Faculty for Social Wellbeing