What is trauma?

Trauma is a deeply distressing experience that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. The most common potentially traumatic experiences that children and young people are faced with are the violent death of someone close, having a serious accident or illness, being in a natural disaster, and sexual abuse. Approximately two-thirds of young people will have been exposed to a traumatic event by the time they turn 16.

Young people’s reactions to traumatic events vary depending on the type of trauma they experience and the support they can access and receive. Traumatic experiences can compromise development and increase risk for problems such as depression, anxiety, substance use and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Although there are effective treatments for many of the mental health effects of trauma, young people often find it difficult to engage in these treatments. This is due to several factors including reluctance to disclose traumatic experiences, worries about talking to a professional about traumatic experiences, and lack of available services.

Our researchers and clinicians are working to develop evidence-based service delivery models that better meet the needs of young people who have experienced trauma and to better understand the relationship between trauma experiences and symptoms in young people.

Our trauma research

Our trauma research focuses on:

  • Developing psychological therapies for the effects of trauma in young people experiencing early psychosis.
  • Understanding the role of post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociation in the development of hallucinations and delusions in first episode psychosis.
  • Exploring how medication impacts trauma symptoms in people with psychosis.
  • Understanding young people’s experiences of seeking professional help for trauma and how that experience can be improved.
  • Trialling psychological therapies for the effects of trauma for young people attending headspace centres.

Types of trauma

Single event trauma: Is related to a single, unexpected event such as a physical or sexual assault, a bushfire, an accident, or a serious illness or injury. Experiences of loss can also be traumatic, for example, the death of a loved one, a miscarriage or a suicide.

Complex trauma: Is related to prolonged or ongoing traumatic events, usually connected to personal relationships; such as domestic violence, bullying, childhood neglect, sexual, physical or emotional abuse, or torture.

Vicarious trauma: Can arise after hearing first-hand about another person’s traumatic experiences. It is most common in people working with traumatised people such as nurses or counsellors. Young people may also experience vicarious trauma through supporting a loved one who is traumatised (e.g. a parent or a friend).

Trans or intergenerational trauma: Comes from cumulative traumatic experiences inflicted on a group of people, which remain unhealed and affect the following generations. It is most common in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and young people from refugee families.

Where to go for help with trauma

If you or someone you know is currently experiencing trauma such as sexual or physical abuse or assault you can go to the police for help.

Other services you can access are:

  • 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) National sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service (online information and counselling available)
  • Blue Knot Foundation Blue Knot Helpline 1300 657 380 (online information and phone counselling support for survivors of childhood abuse)
  • headspace: (online and phone support or find your local headspace centre)
  • Your local GP
  • Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (free call) or (online counselling available)
  • MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78 or (online counselling available)
  • Lifeline: 13 11 14 or ( 24/7 counselling and referrals)

Research Leader

Dr Sarah Bendall
Senior Research Fellow
Research Interests:
Psychosis, trauma.