Trauma & mental health
What is trauma?
Any event that involves exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence has the potential to be traumatic. Almost everyone who experiences trauma will be emotionally affected, but not everyone will respond in the same way. Most people will recover with the help of family and friends. For some, the effects can be long lasting.
Traumatic events can include:
- experiencing a serious accident, an assault, war, a natural disaster, sexual assault or abuse
- witnessing such an event happening to another person
- learning that a friend or family member died suddenly (e.g., as a result of an assault or an accident), or was involved in a life threatening event, or was seriously injured.
Traumatic events are common
Most people will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives. In Australia, the most common causes of trauma are:
- having someone close to you die unexpectedly
- seeing someone badly injured or killed, or unexpectedly seeing a dead body
- being in a life-threatening car accident.
Traumatic events cover a broad range of experiences. Some, like a car accident, are one-off events, sudden and unexpected. Other traumatic events, such as childhood sexual abuse, can happen repeatedly over a long period of time. Both types of traumatic event cause emotional distress for most people and can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Traumatic events are often overwhelming, and it can be hard to think through and come to terms with what has happened. The experience is likely to be very different from anything the person has gone through before. It can be hard to make sense of what happened, and it can cause the person to question long-held beliefs. For instance, after a traumatic event, a person might no longer believe that the world is a safe place, or that people are generally good, or that they are in control of what happens to them. When people talk about their world being shattered after a traumatic event, they are usually talking about these beliefs being shattered.
Other stressful events, like relationship breakdowns or the loss of a loved one through natural causes, are upsetting and difficult to go through and can affect a person’s mental health, but they are not thought of as being traumatic in the same way as the events described above. This is important, because the recommended treatment to help people recover from trauma is different to that for mental health problems arising from other stressful life events.
Trauma and children
As with adults, children can be emotionally affected either by being directly involved in a traumatic event or witnessing another person’s involvement.
Learning that a significant person such as a friend or family member died suddenly, was involved in a life threatening event, or was seriously injured, can also be traumatic for children. For a child under six years of age, that significant person will generally be a parent or caregiving figure.
Around two thirds of children will experience a potentially traumatic event by the time they turn 16.
Explaining trauma to children
If your child has been through a traumatic event, it’s important to discuss it with them in a way they can understand. The following tips may be helpful:
- Let them know that trauma is common and that it’s OK to be upset, e.g., “Sometimes things happen that are really scary, and you keep feeling afraid for a long time afterwards”.
- Let them know that the event was not their fault, e.g., “Things like [the traumatic event] can happen to anyone; it wasn’t your fault”.
- Provide reassurance, e.g., “The important thing to remember is that you’re safe now”, “Any time you feel scared or upset about what happened, I’m here to help”.
- Encourage them to talk openly about how they have been feeling, and try to get an idea about any worries they may have or difficulties they are experiencing, e.g., “Is there anything about [the traumatic event] that you’re especially worried about?”