For many students, college is a fun experience full of lifelong friendships, lasting memories, and expanding knowledge for your future career. It also can be stressful, challenging, and traumatic. Some students experience traumatic events in college that leave them feeling uncertain about their future and unsafe in the world. Student trauma is a real concern that can have a lasting impact on a person’s well-being long after college graduation.
What is Student Trauma?
Student trauma is anything that happens to a student that causes them to believe they are in danger and triggers their fight-or-flight response. Trauma can be a deeply distressing, disturbing, or dangerous experience or a series of stressful life happenings.
Some students come to college already having experienced trauma like bullying, parental neglect, and financial instability. Others experience traumatic events like sexual assault, car wrecks, or domestic abuse during college.
“We know that about 30% of children experience a traumatic experience before they’re 18. Those children bring those experiences to college with them,” said Sheena Miller, LPC-MHSP, Lead Therapist at Integrative Life Center. “Then students are exposed to traumatic events when they’re in college, potentially building on trauma they already experienced or creating new traumatic emotions.”
Trauma students may experience before college:
- Adverse Childhood Experiences
- Domestic violence
- Death of a loved one and grief
- Physical injury
- Car accidents
- Food insecurity
- Substance use
Common traumatic events that occur during college include:
- Sexual assault
- Domestic abuse
- Loss of relationship
- Death of a loved one and grief
- Witnessing a life-threatening event
- Toxic stress
- Terminal illness
- Car accidents
“Life doesn’t stop in college. In fact, it expands. That means students are likely to experience traumatic events themselves or experience distress after learning about something traumatic happening to a loved one,” Sheena said. “Bonds form quickly in college, and hearing about something traumatic happening to your roommate or classmate can be quite disturbing.”
The Overall Impact of Trauma
Everyone responds differently to trauma. Some people experience a traumatic event, process it emotionally, and move on. Others may take longer to adjust after the traumatic experience, and some can’t adjust, resulting in them experiencing emotional trauma symptoms.
Symptoms of emotional trauma may include:
- Insomnia or excessive sleeping
- Being easily startled
- Bodily aches and pains
- Changes in appetite
- Rapid heartbeat
- Gastrointestinal concerns
- Memory loss
- Trouble concentrating
- Anxiety attacks
- Dissociating (feeling disconnected from your own body)
- Suicidal ideation
- Feelings of impending danger or extreme fear
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Loss of enjoyment
Symptoms of emotional trauma are unlikely to disappear. If left untreated, trauma is likely to worsen.
Impact of Trauma on the Ability to Learn
Trauma changes how students approach their academics and negatively impacts their learning process. A student might have difficulty staying awake or joining in on class discussions. Student trauma can impact assignments, projects, grades, and attendance.
While they are physically sitting in the classroom, a student experiencing trauma may be mentally checked out, with their mind focused elsewhere.
A student who feels anxiety from their traumatic experience may begin to seclude themselves.
Overall, student trauma impacts learning by decreasing the student’s cognitive function, causing a lack of motivation, and making them have trouble comprehending and recalling information.
“Classes and learning are likely at the bottom of a student’s priority list when they’re experiencing emotional trauma,” Miller stated. “They may not even see the point in continuing with the education they wanted so much now that the world seems like an unsafe and broken place. Punishing students with failing grades or attendance policies isn’t the answer when a student is in the midst of a mental health crisis.”
Impact of Trauma on Mental Health
Transitioning into college can be taxing on a student’s mental health. Experiencing a traumatic event once they arrive on campus can take a heavy toll on one’s mental health and lead to depression, extreme worry and fear, and trauma disorders.
Trauma can impact mental health, causing:
- Anxiety and depression
- Difficulty with mood regulation
- Low self-esteem
- Trouble communicating feelings
- Extreme fear and worrying
- An inability to adjust
Identifying Student Trauma
While some students express their trauma more outwardly, others are reserved and attempt to hide their emotions. Trauma impacts people differently, and every person responds uniquely to traumatic events. But there are some common signs to look for to determine whether a student may be experiencing emotional trauma and need help.
Emotional trauma symptoms can manifest physically. Trauma can lead a student to be continuously sick so much that it causes pain and soreness throughout their body and changes their overall appearance and demeanor. These physical ailments can lead a student to miss class frequently and potentially continuously seek medical treatment.
Experiencing trauma can create new behavioral responses that don’t always benefit the student. Trauma can lead someone to be aggressive, self-destructive, and impulsive. It also can lead to self-harm, substance use, and suicidal ideation. These behavioral cues can signal to you that a student needs help.
Behavioral cues to look for include:
- Angry outbursts
- Aggression and impatience
- Disruptive actions
- Displaying guilt and shame
- Self-destructive behavior
- Hyper alertness
- An inability to complete tasks
- Neglecting responsibilities
- Risky behavior
- Alcohol or substance use
- Signs of self-harm
Living in constant fight or flight, students will begin to act differently, approach others more intensely, or completely seclude themselves. They may withdraw from social situations that they previously enjoyed. Or they may cling to a person or group of people. Students experiencing emotional trauma also may have difficulty connecting with others. Major changes in a student’s social interactions may indicate they’re experiencing emotional health concerns.
“If you notice that a student just doesn’t seem like themselves… isn’t acting the way you know them to behave, it’s time to check in,” Miller said. “They may be trying to get your attention, or they may not even recognize how much the traumatic event is affecting them.”
How Educators Can Address Student Trauma
When a student comes to college, their support network grows beyond their loved ones to include educators and administrations. These support networks need the right tools to help address student trauma and provide the proper assistance to those in need.
College doesn’t have to be a lonely experience. Try extending an olive branch and creating a safe academic space for students to prosper. While you may not know what happens in a student’s life, you can still assist when they’re experiencing mental health concerns.
If you think a student may be experiencing trauma or another mental health issue, ask to speak privately with them. Tell them the specific differences you’ve noticed in their behavior and ask them if they’re OK or if they need help. If they need assistance, lead them to the campus’s counseling office. If your campus doesn’t offer mental health services or they feel uncomfortable seeking help on campus, direct them to the right person on campus to connect them with off-campus mental health assistance.
“As an educator, you’re not a mental health professional. It’s not your job, nor do you likely have the skills necessary, to help a student heal,” Miller stated. “Still, you’re on the frontlines in recognizing when a student needs help. Then it’s your role to lead them to the assistance they need. You can’t force a student to get help, but you can make it easy for them if they want or need assistance.”
Integrative Life Center Can Help
Through our holistic and evidence-based trauma treatment, Integrative Life Center creates a personalized plan of recovery for each client to help them overcome trauma. If you or a student you know needs help with emotional trauma or another mental health disorder, contact us. We’re here to help.