How to define and visualize trauma, foster supportive learning environments, model healthy behaviors for students, and identify resources to address trauma.
Before addressing trauma and mental health in our classrooms, we must accept that experiencing trauma is normal. But how we react and respond to trauma depends on self-care and community support, on campus and off.
Trauma is universal
Everyone experiences trauma. Each administrator, faculty member, student, staffer, and volunteer on campus has lived through something in their past that has negatively impacted the way they cope with stressful situations in the present.
The present has been traumatic as well. Each person reading this paragraph has survived a global pandemic that claimed millions of lives and many of our loved ones. We have weathered political and civil unrest. We have found ourselves socially isolated and economically challenged. The events of today will inevitably shape the ways we think about tomorrow.
What is trauma?
Trauma does not have a single definition. But most people know what it feels like: Anxiety, dread, apathy, dissociation, brain fog. Trauma may result from any experience in which a person’s emotional resourcesare not adequate to cope with external stressors(Hoch, Stewart, Webb, & Wyandt- Hiebert, 2015). Trauma resurfaces in real-time when past feelings of helplessness bubble up into current feelings of emotional distress.
When we experience feelings of emotional fatigue or reactivity in the present, it is often because an external stressor has unearthed feelings of trauma from our past. This is called a triggering event.
Systemic and historical trauma
Trauma can happen at the individual level, as with sexual assault, or at the community level, as with police brutality. Trauma can also be historical, with the psychological and physical outcomes passed down for generations, as seen in survivors of genocide, such as Holocaust survivors or First Nations communities.
Some trauma is acute, meaning feelings of distress are brought about through a single event, such as a car crash. Other traumas are compounded, meaning feelings of distress accumulate over time, as with systemic racism.
What does trauma look like?
Trauma manifests through the sympathetic nervous system, resurfacing through physical and emotional responsessuch as headaches, substance abuse, insomnia, memory loss, and panic. The sympathetic nervous system is what creates our bodies’ fight-or-flight response. When we’re stressed, it can flush us with hormones that make us feel jittery, short of breath, sweaty, or flushed.
In the classroom, trauma may present through poor attendance, missed deadlines, withdrawal from coursework, acting out in class, or hypervigilance. Some students may attend class while under the influence of substances, or they may be hungover. Others may seek reassurance and clarification about course materials, to the point of disrupting the class or bothering the instructor. Even exceptional performance can be a trauma response.
Triggers and trauma reminders
Trauma resurfaces when we encounter something in our present that instigates subconscious feelings of fear and disempowerment. This is sometimes called a “triggering event” or a “trauma reminder.” Someone who is diagnosed with PTSD or otherwise has acute stress response may say they are “triggered” by a stimulus that reminds them of their trauma.
Reminders of trauma may include:
Sounds, such as songs or fireworks
Sensations, such as hunger or cold
Smells, such as perfume or foods
Locations, such as cars or classrooms
People, such as professors or roommates
Events, such as weddings or concerts
Animals, such as roaches or pets
Communication, such as disagreements or praise
Physical touch, such as hugs or foreplay
Tastes, such as alcohol or medication
Almost anything can remind someone of trauma they have previously experienced.
Age and traumatic experiences
Traumatic experiences happen at all developmental and life stages. Childhood and young adult traumas may include bullying, parental neglect, divorce, school violence, or loss of a caregiver, for example. College students may experience sexual assault, poverty, housing instability, unwanted pregnancy, or substance abuse. Adult traumas may include unstable employment, domestic partner violence, birth, miscarriage, serious illness, loss of an aging parent, or loss of a spouse. Catastrophic events like natural disasters, pandemics, house fires, or transit accidents can happen at any age.
Trauma is not PTSD
PTSD is the acronym used in psychological circles to describe post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health response that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a tragedy or horrific event.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, an adult must experience all of the following over the course of at least one month: Re-experiencing symptoms (flashbacks, recurring dreams, or intrusive thoughts), avoidance symptoms (avoiding people, places, or thoughts related to the trauma), arousal or reactivity symptoms (being startled, experiencing anger, insomnia, or edginess), and cognition or mood symptoms (memory loss, negative emotions, guilt, blame, or apathy) (NIMH, 2021).
PTSD can be “uncomplicated,” resulting from one acute traumatic event. PTSD can also be “complex,” meaning the individual has experienced multiple traumas that have compounded over a long time period. Most people who experience acute or long-term traumas do not develop PTSD.
Students, faculty, and staff will re-enter campus post COVID-19 without the necessary resources to cope with the loss we experienced during the height of the pandemic. During COVID-19, researchers observed increased rates of mental illness, substance abuse, and self-harm.
Every person on campus was forced out of their learning environment and academic routine. Some were required to work and study in unsafe living environments. Others lost income and were unable to access stable housing or food.
Regardless of academic appointment or status on campus, none of us are emotionally equipped for our return to the “new normal.” How could we be? A pandemic of this magnitude occurs only once every 100 years or so.
Trauma and Social Justice
Trauma follows the same paths as systemic oppression.
Trauma is intersectional
Certain groups are at higher risk for historical and community-level traumas due to systemic inequity. Veterans are often cited as a risk group due to their experiences of war. But trauma is more prevalent among numerous groups that have been historically marginalizated in the United States: Women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, Native Americans, former foster youth, refugees and immigrants, undocumented persons, and people with disabilities (Davidson, 2017).
Political movements and civil unrest unfolded against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 sparked national protests in support of police accountability and racial justice. Many young people witnessed or experienced police brutality as they participated in marches and rallies. Others witnessed police or military occupation of civilian neighborhoods.
In addition to trauma felt due to COVID-19 and racial violence, CSUF faculty, students, and staff may have experienced trauma as a result of political unrest during 2019-2021.
For members of historically marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ people, undoccumented folks, and people of color, Donald Trump’s presidency may have contributed to feelings of disempowerment and lack of safety. The trials of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh may have re-traumatized many survivors of sexual assault. News outlets televised the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, with citizens watching in real-time from their living rooms. Countless members of our university community were quarantined with family members or housemates whose political views differed substantially from their own.
The effects of the Trump presidency will reverberate in the U.S. Supreme Court and in national policy decisions for generations. Sustained political unrest can lead or contribute to emotional volatility.
Student mental health statistics
Before the pandemic, students were already struggling with their mental health. American College Health Association data shows that more than half of U.S. college students reported feeling hopeless and nearly 40% had experienced debilitating depression within the past 12 months (American College Health Association, 2018).
Research also shows that 94% of university counselors reported spikes in student reports of severe psychological issues in recent years, such as sexual assault trauma and self-harm (Gallagher, 2015). As many as 50 percent of college students are exposed to a potentially traumatic event in the first year of college (Galatzer-Levy et al., 2012).
By the time they reach college, 66 to 85 percent of youth report lifetime traumatic event exposure (Read, Ouimette, White, Colder, & Farrow, 2011; Smyth, Hockemeyer, Heron, Wonderlich, & Pennebaker, 2008). And 60 percent of adults have reported experiencing abuse or other difficult family circumstances during childhood (National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, 2012).
In light of COVID-19, police violence, civil unrest, and political upheaval, we can expect 100% of our students to be carrying trauma with them as they re-enter campus.
Sexual assault is a leading source of trauma that occurs on campus. Women and LGBTQ populations are disproportionately affected. According to RAINN, “Each year, 11% of all undergraduate and graduate students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.” That’s 23% of all undergraduate women, and 5% of undergraduate men (RAINN, 2021).
Just because CSUF is a commuter campus does not mean sexual assaults do not occur on our campus or in our on-campus housing. Between 2017 and 2019, CSUF police documented :
63 instances of stalking
17 instances of dating violence
15 instances of rape
2 instances of statutory rape
Not all student survivors of sexual assault will choose to report their assaults. More still will not recognize their assaults as sex crimes. Some students will not want to work with police. For this reason, campus crime statistics almost certainly under-represent the incidence of sexual assault in our campus community.
CSUF Trauma Resources
Under California State Law, all CSUF employees are mandatory reporters for sexual assault or dating violence occuring on campus, child abuse or neglect, and imminent threat of harm to self or others. CSUF faculty, staff, and student workers are required to report these incidents to local law enforcement.
Students may incur additional trauma while working with Title IX and police. Alternatives exist for confidential student support.
The CSUF Title IX and Gender Equity department can provide resources and assistance for students experiencing trauma as a result of sexual assault, stalking, dating violence, domestic violence, or other forms of gender-based discrimination on campus.
However, Title IX complaints are NOT confidential. Title IX investigations will create paper trails and potentially involve outside departments and offices.
Campus police can launch criminal investigations on campus. According to CSUF University Police department:
It is important that all crimes occurring on campus be immediately reported to CSUF Police Department to ensure that appropriate action is taken. Crimes occurring on campus or in/on off-campus buildings and property can be reported 24/7.
Report crimes the following ways:
In an Emergency: Dial 9-1-1
Non-Emergency: (657) 278-2515
In person, at the CSUF Police Station (identified as UP on the campus map)
From any on-campus emergency blue phone - Blue Phone Map
Alternatives to Title IX and Campus Police
To maintain their confidentiality or to avoid ongoing trauma, many students may not want to file complaints through the Title IX office or University Police Department.
The Campus Confidential Advocate provides support for students, faculty, and staff who have experienced sexual assault, stalking, dating violence, domestic violence, or other forms of gender-based discrimination on campus.
You may refer the student to the Confidential Advocate, or they may approach the confidential advocate themselves.
Monday - Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Student Wellness (SHCC-West)
Advocate Appointment Request
Dean of Students Office
The Dean of Students Office provides care services for students experiencing academic distress as a result of acute or ongoing trauma. Many students may need assistance processing intellectual, physical, emotional, and behavioral setbacks during their time at CSUF.
an of Students Office
Monday - Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Contact the Dean of Students Office to refer a student who:
Writes about threats to harm themself or others.
Reports feeling overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, isolated, or depressed.
Is going through family, relationship, or interpersonal problems.
Experiences grief due to the loss of a loved one.
Lacks a social support network.
Dean of Students Referrals
There are two simple ways faculty, staff, and other employees can assist students in traumatic situations: The Student in Distress Referral and the Basic Needs Services Request.
Student in Distress Referral
The Dean of Students office will respond within three business days to Student in Distress referrals submitted by faculty through a virtual form.
This is the best way for concerned parties to assist students experiencing psychological or behavioral issues in the classroom or off campus. Please use this form if you suspect a student is struggling with suicidal ideation, substance abuse, or an eating disorder.
Tuffy’s Basic Needs Services Request
Faculty should refer students with food and housing security needs to a virtual form on the Dean of Students website. Students will fill out information about crises or ongoing traumatic events that have led to food and housing insecurity.
When students submit a Tuffy’s Basic Needs Services Request, they will be asked to waive their FERPA privacy protections. The Dean of Students Office may access the student’s Financial Aid records.
Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS)
During normal academic sessions, CAPS offers no-cost and low-cost counseling services for CSUF students. The following types of services are available: Individual counseling, couples counseling, crisis counseling, group counseling, case management, psychiatric services, and outside / community referrals.
Students may make an appointment by calling the number below or seeking in-person services on campus. Intake appointments are usually 30-45 minutes in length. Faculty members may help triage students by escorting them to CAPS during periods of on-campus instruction.
However, CAPS often experiences high wait times for student appointments. In a 2015 national sample, 94% of university counselors reported spikes in student reports of severe psychological issues in recent years, such as sexual assault trauma and self-harm (Gallagher, 2015).
During COVID-19 virtual instruction, telehealth appointments are available.
Mon - Fri: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Student Wellness (SHCC-East)
Students have ongoing access to mental health resources and self-care tools through the YOU@Fullerton website and app.
Disability Support Services (DSS)
DSS offers accommodations for students whose trauma may manifest through anxiety, poor attention, or other factors that may limit learning or impede student success. Students may request accommodations by visiting the Virtual Student Resources page.
Faculty may seek DSS support for help understanding accommodations, student rights, confidentiality, universal course design, and other topics.
Mon - Fri: 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Gordon Hall, Room 101
Diversity Initiatives & Resource Centers (DIRC)
Students who have experienced trauma may seek support from members of their own student communities. Five autonomous organizations comprise the CSUF DIRC. Each hosts numerous workshops and events that serve the diverse needs of the CSUF student body.
According to DIRC: “Each center offers students a home away from home, an inclusive space for students to be their authentic selves, and co-curricular engagement opportunities for students to develop deeper understanding of their identities and those of others. Students of any identity are welcome to explore any of the spaces whether or not they identify with the centers.”
The five DIRCs are located on the first floor of Pollak Library South.
- African American Resource Center
WoMen’s and Adult Re-Entry Center
The Women’s and Adult Re-Entry Center links nontraditional students with community events and resources to help transition into a higher education environment. Adult re-entry students may be: parents, 25+ years old, veterans, returning from a break in higher education, coming to higher education later in life, or employed off campus.
For these students, the higher education environment itself may be traumatizing. Academic bureaucracies, course expectations, study habits, and on-campus social events may be difficult to understand and navigate. Faculty should re-direct non-traditional students to the WoMen’s Center if they need help adjusting to campus life.
WoMen’s and Adult Re-Entry
Monday, Tuesday, Friday: 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Wednesday, Thursday: 8 a.m. - 7 p.m.
Gordon Hall 205
Ten Teaching Tips
“Trauma-informed educators recognize students’ actions are a direct result of their life experiences. When their students act out or disengage, they don’t ask them, ‘What is wrong with you?’ but rather, ‘What happened to you?’” - Huang, et al (2014)
All of us carry our personal traumas into our professional lives. Here are 10 tips and tricks that will help you address trauma in your CSUF classrooms -- whether online or in person.
Humanize yourself. Open up to your students, and encourage your students to share about themselves and their lives outside CSUF. This will build trust and accountability in the classroom.
Some faculty choose to begin class with non-academic ice-breaker exercises, such as “Share a self-care strategy you’re currently using” or “What’s something you’re really looking forward to?” to set the tone.
2. Set Work-Life Boundaries
Although it’s important to make yourself available to students, don’t be too available. Avoid sharing personal social media accounts or giving out your cell phone number. Try not to answer e-mails outside of standard work hours or over the weekend.
This will dissuade students from reaching out for support at inappropriate times or in inappropriate settings. Students will also model your boundaries in their personal and professional lives.
3.Turn Off E-Mail
Are you brave enough to un-install your e-mail app or turn off push notifications on your smartphone? Try it out. At the very least, indicate on your syllabus that you respond to e-mail during your designated work hours only.
Here is some sample language for your syllabi: “I am available to correspond via e-mail between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. E-mails received after hours or over the weekend will be returned the next business day.”
4.Limit Office Hour Interaction
Part of setting healthy boundaries is limiting the time you make available for interpersonal labor. Consider specifying in your syllabus the amount of time you will see each student for office hours. Students may meet with you in 10-minute, 15-minute, or 30-minute slots so as not to tap your emotional resources.
5. Formalize Flexibility
The COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally reshaped academic life at CSUF. While faculty are not in the business of awarding easy As, we should be flexible to ensure students succeed in the class if they have been significantly impacted by the coronavirus crisis, police violence, housing instability, or other common traumatic events.
Create flexible assignments or exams that allow students to complete work on their own schedules. Be ready to adjust your course calendar or workload to accommodate student burnout.
6. Anticipate Late Assignments
When students are traumatized, it is normal for them to fall behind on their work or struggle with time management. Students will ask for extensions as they re-enter CSUF’s learning environment. Have a plan for how you will handle those requests.
Here is some sample language for your syllabi: “If your assignment will be submitted late, you must contact me at least 12 hours before the deadline. (Unless there is an emergency that requires you to contact me with less notice). We will develop a plan for submitting your assignment -- usually a 24-hour extension. Failure to contact me in advance of a late submission will result in a 0.”
7. Don’t Require Documentation
As university faculty, we usually require documentation of illness, death, or other extenuating circumstances for which students request extensions or incomplete grade outcomes. Now is not the time for such formalities, especially when health care is not a right for all U.S. residents.
If a student tells you a family member has fallen ill, believe them. If a student can’t attend class due to a funeral or hospital visit, don’t request copies of the funeral program or a note from the physician. Such information requests can re-traumatize individuals in already stressful situations.
8. Use Inclusive Examples
As you design lectures, assignments, and exams, it is crucial that you consider the lived experiences of our diverse student body. Many CSUF students did not grow up in two-parent households. Many did not grow up with stable housing or food security. Consider how your questionnaires and in-class examples reflect biases that may trigger unpleasant feelings in the classroom. This is especially relevant for Upper-Division Writing (UDW) courses.
9. Model Mental Health
There is no shame in going to therapy. Everyone should do it! It’s also okay to take a personal day or set an Out of Office reply when you need a breather. By being candid about emotional wellness and mental health best practices in the classroom, we can encourage all students to confront their trauma before it affects their academic performance.
Provide information for CAPS in your syllabi to encourage students to seek counseling: https://www.fullerton.edu/caps/
10. Be Kind
Empathy goes a long way in times of collective trauma. Did a student fail to address you by your honorific? Did your teaching assistant provide lackluster feedback on the last round of papers? In the words of Taylor Swift: Shake it off. Now is not the time to be a stickler, and it’s a sign of emotional maturity not to take little mistakes personally.
Trauma resources provided by Chelsea Reynolds, Ph.D.
Department of Communications