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Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Factsheet (for Schools)

Reviewed by: Shirin Hasan, MD
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What Teachers Should Know

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition brought on by the overwhelming stress of a trauma. Someone can develop PTSD after a traumatic or terrifying event in which physical or emotional harm was experienced, threatened, or witnessed.

Traumas that can lead to PTSD include:

  • violent assaults
  • physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • fires or natural disasters
  • automobile accidents
  • senseless acts of violence, such as school or neighborhood shootings
  • arrests, overdoses, evictions
  • serious physical injuries or life-threatening medical illnesses
  • witnessing another person go through these kinds of traumatic events

PTSD also can happen after the unexpected or violent death of a family member or close friend, or following serious harm or threat of death or injury to a loved one. Survivor guilt (feeling guilty after surviving an event in which someone died) also might lead to PTSD.

People of any age can have PTSD. PTSD-like symptoms can begin right after a trauma, or not until weeks or months after it. In some cases, PTSD develops long after a trauma has happened.

Students with PTSD may:

  • seem irritable, anxious, cranky, or angry
  • seem detached or depressed
  • have problems paying attention or concentrating
  • have trouble eating or sleeping
  • may startle easily or be overly sensitive to noises, sights, or smells that remind them of the traumatic event
  • avoid people, places, things, or activities that remind them of the event

Students with PTSD might not recognize the link between their symptoms and the trauma.

Not every student who has been through trauma will develop PTSD. Most won’t. But they may show trauma-related (PTSD-like) symptoms for a short while, and need support. When symptoms are present in the first days and weeks after a trauma, a student may be diagnosed with acute stress disorder. With help and support, most students who have been through trauma do find ways to cope and recover.

Symptoms must last longer than a month to be diagnosed as PTSD. PTSD usually needs help from a mental health professional with experience in treating it. Therapy helps students with PTSD recover.

Students with PTSD or acute stress disorder might need to:

  • take medicine to treat anxiety
  • miss class time to talk with school counselors or mental health specialists
  • have extra time to do class work

What Teachers Can Do

Teachers or school counselors can offer:

  • referrals to qualified therapists, if needed
  • accommodations tailored to the student’s needs
  • listening, support, encouragement, and understanding
  • extra help with schoolwork

Trauma makes it harder to focus and learn. Avoid overloading students with homework or things that can add to their stress. Allow students to practice relaxation skills at school when appropriate. Encourage them to talk with a school counselor when symptoms arise. 

It takes time for students with PTSD to begin to feel better. In therapy, they learn coping skills to manage their anxiety. They learn to safely face things they avoided because of trauma. Gradually, as they learn to process the trauma they went through, their symptoms decrease.

Reviewed by: Shirin Hasan, MD
Date reviewed: June 2021