College can be a fun, fresh, and exciting time for young adults, but for some, it can trigger or result in emotional trauma that affects their mental and physical well-being. While these young people are meant to enjoy this new growth phase in life, they instead feel profoundly unsafe and often helpless. Understanding and recognizing the signs of trauma in students can help you assist a young person in need.
How Common is Trauma in College Students?
Students come to college from a life relatively unknown to faculty, staff, or administrators. They bring with them traumatic experiences, including living in poverty, experiencing abuse, or surviving ongoing bullying. Some students may not even want to attend college, but they were unsure what to do next, or their parents expected them to attend.
The American Psychological Association found that nearly two-thirds of incoming undergraduates experienced trauma before attending college, and roughly 10% develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a severe trauma disorder. In 2022, about 11.6 million students enrolled in a secondary institution, which means 1.16 million of those students have PTSD.
Students may also experience trauma during their time away at college. For example, some students experience relationship and domestic violence, and others learn negative coping mechanisms for stress, such as substance use. Statistics show that one in five women are sexually assaulted while at college.
“College may be thought of as the best time of someone’s life, but that’s not the reality for many people,” said Kathy Reynolds, LCSW, Executive Clinical Director at Integrative Life Center. “Many students come to college with untreated mental health issues that become worse during the transition. Other students experience traumatic happenings while on campus and are left needing support from anyone around them.”
While many college students have emotional trauma, identifying students with traumatic backgrounds or who have experienced trauma is difficult. Administrators, faculty, staff, and family members must understand and be able to recognize signs of emotional trauma in students to lead these students to the help they may need.
“You can’t always just look at someone and know they need help. You need to have an idea of what their behavior was like and how it’s changed. A lot of people that college students come into contact with don’t have that base reference of their behavior,” Kathy said.
Symptoms of emotional trauma in students include:
- Not attending class or academic decline
- Seeming disconnected or easily agitated
- Anxiety or depression
- Frequently mentioning headaches, stomach aches, or sleeping through classes often
- Seeming disconnected from their surroundings
- Loss of interest in previously-enjoyed activities
- Withdrawal or isolation
- Being on edge or easily startled
Recognizing Trauma in Students
Everyone on campus plays a role when it comes to helping students who experience trauma. The first step is identifying that a student may need help. Then you guide them to the resources available on campus.
Here are some of the typical campus groups and what they can look for to recognize whether students need help. While these symptoms don’t mean for sure that a student is experiencing trauma, they still may indicate that a student needs help and a conversation is worthwhile.
“Just because someone displays signs or symptoms of trauma doesn’t mean they’re experiencing emotional trauma,” Kathy said. “College students are tired, busy, and often have poor habits. It’s important to respond, regardless. It’s better to have a conversation with someone and discover that they’re fine than to avoid a conversation because you don’t want to overreact and find out later that the person was in crisis.”
Faculty often are the adults on campus with the most frequent engagement with students. Therefore, they’re likely the first to notice if something changes about a student. That means faculty must be prepared to recognize signs of emotional trauma and know what resources are available for students.
Signs of trauma faculty may notice include:
- Poor attendance
- Failure to submit assignments
- Decline in work quality
- Disheveled appearance
- Concerning behavior or comments
- Isolating from classmates
“Faculty are often the first line of defense when it comes to helping college students with mental health issues. The reason is that they’re the adults who come in most regular contact with students,” Kathy explained. “Faculty members shouldn’t assume that a student is just a bad student if they aren’t coming to class, submitting assignments, or taking care of themselves physically. The student may very well need help. Most universities have early warning systems for this reason. But faculty don’t have to wait until a grade check to check in with a student and ask them if they need help.”
College students are experiencing a new sense of freedom and adulthood. Part of this newfound freedom means they don’t engage with their parents as much as they likely did when they lived at home. Still, parents can watch for signs of trauma in their children. If they see them, they can help the student find resources.
Signs of emotional trauma parents should look out for include:
- Changes in communication or avoidance
- Verbally expressing negative feelings or emotions
- Negative feedback on academic performance
- Frequently talking about not feeling well or not sleeping
“It’s difficult for parents or other family members to recognize signs of trauma in students because they don’t see or talk to them as often,” Kathy said. “Parents know that college students get busy and have erratic sleep schedules. But they should make it a priority to check in regularly with their student and trust their instincts if they think something isn’t quite right.”
When you’re in college, you spend pretty much all of your time with your peers. You live with them, eat with them, and attend classes together. Chances are that peers will notice changes in a student experiencing trauma first.
Trauma symptoms your peers may display include:
- Frequent discussion of negative feelings
- Ongoing sadness or depression
- Emotional outbursts
- Decline in physical appearance
- Unhealthy habits or practices
- Concerning alcohol or substance use
- Withdrawing from social settings or isolation
- Self-harming behaviors or talking about suicide
“A lot of the onus when it comes to mental health concerns is put on college students’ peers. They’re also young people, so it’s a lot to ask of them,” said Kathy. “Universities can help students care for each other through education and regular discussion of mental health issues and how to respond if they think someone is in need.”
What to Do When You See Signs of Trauma
If you see signs of trauma, what do you do next? The simple way to remember the best course of action is the triple Rs: recognize, respond, and refer. These three steps can help the campus community reach out to a student in need.
Intentionally watch for the signs of trauma. Check-in with students regularly and ask if they’re OK. Make sure students know that they can talk to you about anything that’s bothering them. The goal is for them to understand that their feelings, regardless of what they are, are valid and you’re a safe person to share them with.
If you see signs of trauma, you must respond. Response means having a one-on-one conversation with the student. Tell them specifically what you’ve noticed and ask whether they’re OK. Remember to educate them on the importance of seeking help and normalize the practice.
Guide the students to seek professional help on campus with school counselors or outside treatment facilities. Provide resources and research to help back up your referral. When extreme conditions arise, understand how to handle the emergency and try to diffuse it to the best of your ability.
“If you think a student is in danger of harming themselves or someone else, contact emergency services immediately,” Kathy said.
Help from Integrative Life Center
Trauma is all too common in students, and adjusting to college life can be extremely distressing in itself. If you or someone you love needs trauma treatment, Integrative Life Center is here to help. We offer various therapies to help people process and heal from trauma while learning to recognize and cope with triggers in the future. Contact us today to learn more.