College campuses bring together people from all backgrounds and walks of life. Unfortunately, many of these students are survivors of trauma by the time they arrive on campus. They may be veterans of a war or they may have experienced violence. Some have experienced natural disasters, accidents, or terrorist attacks. All of these events are serious because they put life and health at risk. In some cases, the trauma of a situation may result in post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.


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What is PTSD?

PTSD tends to elicit images of soldiers in firefights who come home from battle not the same as when they left. PTSD can and does affect service members. The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs approximates that as many as 20% of Iraq War veterans and 11% of Afghanistan War veterans suffer from PTSD. However, seeing combat and the terrors that may accompany it is not the only way to develop PTSD, and soldiers aren’t the only ones who may be affected.

PTSD can develop in anyone, though there are signs that it may also have a genetic link as well. Someone who is prone to depression, anxiety, or substance abuse may be at a higher risk of developing PTSD, but PTSD may also cause the same symptoms once it has developed. Generally, anyone who has experienced trauma may develop PTSD; the events listed below may result in an increased likelihood of developing the illness:

  • Combat experience
  • Childhood neglect or abuse
  • Sexual or physical assault
  • Car accident, plane crash, boating accident
  • Surviving an attack (such as a shooting)
  • Surviving natural disasters
  • Watching someone else die unexpectedly (as in combat or an attack)

These experiences are all traumatic for an individual, from the young soldier who has never been in a firefight before to the woman who survives the car accident that kills her partner. Of course, many people can also experience these situations and not develop PTSD. The development of the disorder depends on many factors: how long the event lasted, if you were injured, if someone you care about was injured or killed, where you were during the event, whether you were helpless during the event, and what happened in the aftermath.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Different people react differently to traumatic events. Some may experience an immediate onset of symptoms following the events, but others may have no problems until years down the line. People also generally experience natural mood fluctuations, so feeling depressed for a couple of weeks every once in a while is probably not PTSD but rather a completely natural feeling of sadness. If symptoms last more than a month, incapacitate you to the extent that you cannot live your life normally, and cause you to be very upset, you could have PTSD and should talk to a medical professional.

Generally, PTSD manifests in one of four ways:

  • Reexperience: The individual may suffer from repeated flashbacks in which he or she relives the traumatic event. These flashbacks may occur during the day, while the individual is awake, or in dreams. The individual may not be able to shake the memory even when actively trying to think of other things.
  • Avoidance: The individual may try to stay away from the location of the traumatic event and withdraw from relationships with other individuals who were involved in the event or who remind him or her of the event. For example, a person who was in a car accident may stop driving, avoid getting into other people’s vehicles, and not want to go to the part of town where the accident occurred. The individual may try to change the subject when the topic is brought up.
  • Negativity: The individual’s thoughts and emotions may become more negative. He or she may start to lose self-esteem and struggle to express goodwill or happy emotions. The individual may lose interest in people and activities which used to be pleasurable and might start pushing people away. His or her memory may also suffer.
  • Hyperarousal: The individual may seem on edge, like a bundle of nerves, and easily frighten. He or she may be hyperaware of location and surroundings, as if waiting for something bad to happen. The individual may have trouble sleeping and start engaging in self-destructive behaviors, such as alcohol and drug abuse or road rage.

How is PTSD diagnosed?

A doctor will perform a psychological evaluation to diagnose PTSD. This includes asking you about your symptoms and the past trauma that you experienced. He or she may also do physical exams and lab tests to rule out other potential causes of your symptoms. If you are visiting a primary care physician, you may receive a referral to a mental health professional who specializes in the treatment of PTSD.

How is PTSD treated?

Most often, PTSD is treated in therapy. Research by the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs has found cognitive behavioral therapy (often a combination of cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy) to be the most effective therapy for PTSD, but individuals may also be treated with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (medication that also treats depression).

  • Cognitive Processing Therapy: This involves talking to a therapist about the traumatic event, emotions that have changed because of the traumatic event, and how an individual feels now. The therapist will help the individual understand that certain thoughts about the event cause physical or mental reactions and work to minimize stress. This type of therapy stresses that the traumatic event and the repercussions of the event are not the fault of the individual and helps create new coping mechanisms.
  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy: This helps desensitize the individual to the traumatic event through repeated exposure to the traumatic memories until they have little meaning left. For instance, a therapist may have an individual talk about the event over and over again over a long period of time. The therapist may have the individual visit places and people that trigger the trauma. Eventually, the individual becomes desensitized to the event.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: This type of therapy involves talking about a traumatic event while also performing a series of exercises (focusing on sounds or looking at stimuli). This allows the individual to focus on a task while talking about the event in the background. Ideally, the individual’s focus on movement or sound lessens the stress of talking about the trauma and changes the individual’s reaction to the memories in the long term.
  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors: These are antidepressants that can be prescribed to also treat the symptoms of PTSD. Often, they help an individual feel less anxiety and depression while improving sleep and the ability to concentrate.

Keep your health care provider in the loop about any improvement or side effects that you notice. Your doctor may adjust your dosage or switch you to a different medication if there is a problem. What works for one person does not work for everybody, so be sure to communicate your needs to your doctor.

People who have been through a trauma may also qualify for a service animal or an emotional support animal. A service dog is trained for a specific purpose (such as guiding individuals who have become blind or alerting others that an individual is about to have a seizure), while an emotional support dog provides friendship and comfort to individuals with mental health disorders. If you were injured as a result of your traumatic event and have become disabled, you may qualify for a service animal. Emotional support animals are not trained the same way as service animals, but they still provide a service to their caretakers.

What resources exist for individuals suffering from PTSD?

For everyone:

For Spanish speakers:

For LGBT+ youth:

  • The Trevor Project
    • Call 1-866-488-7386 toll-free. Chat and text options are also available.
    • Helpline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Page last updated: 12/2016