Trauma or traumatic experiences are events or series of life events that shocks, upsets or distresses us. It can create a lot of powerful and unpleasant emotions that can remain with you even long after the event(s) happened. A traumatic event could be something that occurs on an individual level; for example, the sudden loss of a family member, or the experience of abuse or violence, or event could occur in their environment such as experiencing war, natural disasters or pandemics.
These events do need to have occurred directly to a young person; they may have witnessed a distressing event or felt threatened by something or someone. Therefore, it is important to consider that a young person does not need to have been a recipient of physical or emotional harm to experience trauma and many cases may be the witnessing of violence or abuse towards a parent, sibling or other person other than themselves.
What is PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
PTSD therefore is the anxiety driven illness that often develops after a distressing event has been experienced by someone. The impact of acute stress on the brain disrupts the processing of the event and therefore often memories of what happened are distorted or parts missing. This can make future processing or resolving of what happened confusing and distressing as things that remind the young person of the traumatic event can set-off feelings of extreme anxiety. These are called triggers and as with anxiety a young person may learn to avoid triggers of the event with negative consequences.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
PTSD occurs in about 1 in 3 people that experience a traumatic experience. Symptoms of PTSD usually appear within six months of the event happening, but can start the next day, weeks, months or in some cases even years after the event occurred. Symptoms can happen all-of-a-sudden in one go, or it can develop very gradually with the young person showing signs more slowly, and symptoms becoming chronic and persistent.
Flashbacks & Nightmares
These usually occur in the form of reliving the event that happened whether during the day as a flashback (thoughts or images coming their mind) or at night as a nightmare.
These can feel so real that people report feeling right back in the event with all the associated sounds, smells or feelings they had at the time. A flashback can be set off by a number of things, for instance for example a young person that grew up in warzone may flashbacks after hearing a loud noise.
The reliving of traumatic experiences is highly distressing and upsetting. To stop feeling this way a young person may appear to want to avoid things that remind them of the trauma. This could be avoiding certain places or certain people or avoiding talking about it in conversation. At the same a young person may appear to forget or ‘block out’ information about what happened.
In an attempt to self-manage trauma a young person may learn to distract themselves from how they are feeling internally which can lead to them appearing disinterested in things and becoming numb with little interest towards anything.
Hypervigilance or Hyperarousal
Due to the adrenaline involved in experiences of acute stress a young person may find themselves struggling to sleep or becoming hypersensitive to things around them. This can lead to them becoming, nervous, irritable or quick to anger.
Teachers play an invaluable role in assisting with their pupils. Whilst we are preparing ourselves to help others we must also look after ourselves; we’ve got some advice and guidance on this in the section. As with all matters of mental health taking time to gain awareness of conditions like PTSD helps to build confidence in what to do and how to support early intervention and prevention.
How to support
PTSD is a serious mental health conditions that always need professional mental health support. Teachers therefore are only expected to be alert to the early signs of PTSD sign and try and facilitate further professional support.
Perhaps you notice a pattern of the signs mentioned above (for example telling you that they are experiencing flashbacks of a traumatic event), then it is important to talk to them. Don’t be afraid to ask them if everything is ok and if anything is worrying them, these simple steps can often facilitate conversations that can lead to a young person receiving help. We’ve got some advice and guidance on regarding their mental health that can give you some ideas on how to go about this and we outline the some of the potential support pathways you can suggest in the support section here.
PTSD is different from general anxiety as it is more specific to a particular event however there are some crossovers with worry, anxiety and other stress related conditions. It is therefore a good idea to take a look at our page on anxiety.
What if the young person does not want any help?
None of us are able to solve every problem we face and sometimes a young person’s wellbeing becomes the most important focus. If you have serious concerns about young person’s mental health you should contact your mental health representative in your school (sometimes this might be a headteacher or deputy head) or contact professional mental health support.