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May 2018: Mental Health and Trauma in Adolescence

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and May 10 was National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. The day's theme was "Partnering for Health and Hope Following Trauma." This update gives an overview of trauma, how trauma can affect adolescents, and how adults can help.

What is Trauma and What Does It Look Like?

Traumatic events are often scary, shocking, or dangerous, such as witnessing violence, being in a car accident, experiencing a natural disaster, or losing a parent. In the United States, nearly half (46 percent) of youth under age 18 have had at least one experience that could be traumatic. 

After a traumatic event, most people experience intense responses such as anxiety, trouble sleeping, and flashbacks. These responses are normal. Trauma can also trigger symptoms resembling other conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and depression, so it is important to know whether symptoms are linked to trauma or another issue. 

Over time, the negative effects generally fade. For some adolescents, though, the effects of trauma persist, interfering with everyday well-being, and could require specialized care. Some signs that adolescents might need to seek professional help include:

  • Feeling irritable, anxious, or depressed
  • Having nightmares
  • Experiencing physical symptoms (e.g., stomach pain, headaches)
  • Engaging in risk-taking behavior (e.g., drinking, taking drugs, illegal activity)

Adolescents who are more likely to experience trauma include lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth; youth in military families; and youth involved in the child welfare system. Youth who have a history of mental health disorders, are under chronic stress, or have previously experienced trauma may also be more susceptible to the effects of trauma and may require additional help.

How to Help Adolescents Cope with Trauma

Each person copes with a traumatic event differently. Adolescents can exhibit resilience, and supportive adults can help them heal. Trauma-informed approaches ensure adults understand and respond to the effects of trauma on adolescents in programs, practices, or schools. Here are some ways that parents, caregivers, and youth-serving professionals can help adolescents recover from traumatic events:

  • Acknowledge that they have been through traumatic events and recognize their feelings.
  • Connect them with others who have also experienced a traumatic event.
  • Encourage them to maintain healthy habits like exercising, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding alcohol and other drugs.
  • Refer them for trauma screening and evidence-based trauma treatment if their symptoms persist.

Share on Social Media


  • Sometimes your adolescent's feelings of sadness, anxiety, and anger aren't just typical teen emotions—they could be symptoms of a mental health disorder. For #MentalHealthMonth, see how researchers are learning more about the role of trauma and toxic stress, factors that promote resilience, and different types of treatment for mental health disorders in adolescence. https://bit.ly/2spB37S 


  • Mental health disorders can be life-threatening when left untreated: suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for adolescents ages 15-24. Learn about the support services available to adolescents. https://bit.ly/2q7BjpB #MHM2018  
  • DYK #mentalhealth disorders often emerge in adolescence? This video from @TeenHealthGov and @youthdotgov highlights what adolescent brain development may tell us about mental health. https://youtu.be/7bLvGHYXxFE #TAG42Mil
  • #Educators can use @samhsagov's framework for addressing #trauma to recognize the signs, offer learning supports for students, and integrate trauma-informed care into the classroom. See how: https://bit.ly/2JNbbqW #TAG42Mil #HeroesofHope
Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on August 23, 2018