the impact of trauma on mental health

People experience trauma differently but with the right support, things can get better.

Though there are many definitions of trauma, it is generally understood that traumatic events are situations that threaten your life, sense of safety, or that of someone around you.


What is trauma? 

Trauma is the response to something – usually an event/s – that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. Everyone experiences and responds to it in different ways and it can cause feelings of distress, fear, helplessness and loss of control.

Due to the difficult nature of these events, it is often hidden, not reported or denied. There are many reasons for this including being afraid of getting into trouble, feeling shame, guilt or self-blame about the event, or being scared of the offender.

Many young people who experience trauma learn ways to manage, but sometimes additional support is needed.


The different types of trauma

Complex trauma can occur during childhood or adulthood. It describes the experience of repeated traumatic events; such as abuse or neglect, or social trauma such as war or cultural dislocation. Its effects on mental and physical health can be long-lasting – impacting on emotional health, wellbeing, relationships and daily functioning.

Intergenerational trauma is the experience of trauma that is passed down through the generations, from the survivors who directly experienced or witnessed the traumatic events. It can lead to higher rates of addiction and mental ill health, in addition to increased rates of family violence and incarceration. In Australia, it is commonly associated with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities due to the historical trauma caused by colonisation and it particularly impacts the descendants of the Stolen Generations. You can find out more at the Healing Foundation.

Single incident trauma can occur when a person is exposed to one traumatic event, such as a car accident, an experience of loss, natural disaster, or physical or sexual assault. Like other trauma, single event trauma can also impact on a young person’s mental and physical health and wellbeing and may lead to post-traumatic-stress disorder.

Vicarious trauma can occur when someone hears or is exposed to another person’s trauma. It commonly occurs in people who work in challenging environments, such as counsellors or paramedics. It may also affect someone who cares for or supports a person who has experienced a traumatic event.

How common is trauma in young people?

Trauma can impact anyone. However some groups are at higher risk, such as young people in out-of-home care, those experiencing homelessness, in juvenile justice settings, refugee or asylum seekers, members of the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community or people working in emergency services.


The effects of trauma

Everyone responds to trauma differently and there is no ‘right’ way to respond. This depends on the individual, their past experiences, levels of support and the nature of the events. What happens after traumatic events are normal responses to ‘not normal’ events.

Being exposed to trauma as a young person can have a wide range of effects on mental and physical health.

Common responses include:

  • confusion
  • sadness
  • anxiety or fear
  • agitation
  • anger
  • numbness and detachment
  • denial
  • embarrassment
  • fear
  • guilt
  • shame
  • helplessness
  • feeling out of control
  • nightmares
  • flashbacks.

Common physical symptoms include:

  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • altered sleep patterns
  • changes in appetite
  • headaches
  • gastrointestinal problems
  • being easily startled.          

Many young people may find that with time and support it can get easier to cope with traumatic experiences. However, some young people may find that their distress continues or increases. This may result in:

  • mood swings, including irritability
  • feeling more fragile or vulnerable
  • fatigue
  • grief
  • fears of recurrence
  • emotional detachment
  • increased arousal and vigilance
  • self-blame or guilt
  • preoccupation with the events
  • difficulties making decisions
  • problems with school, work and relationships
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • dissociation (or feeling numb, cut off or disconnected to your feelings)
  • substance use.

Alcohol and other drug use

The experience of trauma can result in distressing and uncomfortable feelings. Some people use substances to try to manage these feelings, they may give some relief in the short-term, however, in the long-run it can lead to significant issues with addiction, health and wellbeing.

What helps?

Seek help

People can recover from the impact of trauma. Some people choose to try to manage on their own, but sometimes additional support may be needed.

You might have been feeling better for some time but the challenges might unexpectedly resurface. This can occur during unsettled times when lots of change is happening, or if you are reminded of the circumstances of the trauma. At these times it can be helpful to seek support, even if you have had assistance in the past. Reaching out for support whenever needed can help make things easier to manage.


Where can I seek help?

Though it can be really challenging reaching out to others to let them what you’re going through, it can help you feel supported, less isolated and it can be the beginning of a valuable support network. Whether you are speaking to a friend or a counsellor, it’s entirely up to you what you feel comfortable sharing. You might just want to say you’re having a tough time:


Look after yourself

There are things you can do to support your mental health and wellbeing when you are having a tough time, these include:  

  • connecting with people
  • staying active – spend time doing nice things
  • eating well
  • cutting back on alcohol and other drugs
  • getting enough sleep
  • learning new coping skills.


Other useful websites:

To find a health service near you visit Head to Health


  • Blue Knot Helpline  Online information and phone counselling support for survivors of childhood abuse
  • 1800RESPECT National sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service (online information and counselling available)
  • FASSTT National peak body for survivors of refugee trauma



The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

Last reviewed 12 November 2019



Get professional support

If you feel you need help there are a range of ways we can support you.