Could School Cause PTSD? (2023)

Could School Cause PTSD? (1)

Source: Diego Grez/CC 3.0

Some people's school experience is as traumatic as that experienced by people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Here, I create an example and at the end, offer takeaways for a wider range of people.

On the first day of preschool, Mo freaked out at the thought of his mother leaving him without her. That was a frightening first half-hour after which he calmed. But his fear resurfaced when his teacher insisted it was nap time and he had to lie down—he wasn't tired. He wanted not only to stay awake but to run around. The teacher wouldn't let him. It scared Mo that he wasn't even allowed to stay awake during the day. Worse, it wasn't his parents telling him; it was some stranger. Not a good beginning for Mo's decades in the schools.

Like many bright kids, Mo knew the alphabet and even read some words by the time he entered the first grade. But like most classes in recent decades, they weren't grouped by ability but mixed. Making it worse for above-average students, most teachers feel external and internal pressure to focus on the low-achievers, to close the achievement gap.

So Mo had to sit through two years of lessons teaching kids to read in the way that weak students need to learn it: phonics: vowel sounds, consonant sounds, short-a, long e: diphthongs, digraphs. And when it came time to actually read, Mo, who could read The Cat in the Hat cold, was pressed into indentured servitude: He had to painstakingly help weaker students struggle through. "It. ... was ... a ... colb ... no ... cold ... and wet ... bay. "No, Johnny it's 'cold and wet day.'"

Mo couldn't still for this and so started reading ahead: "No, Mo, stay with your reading partner." Such strictures frustrated Mo more and so he developed a habit of doodling and, horrors, getting out of his seat to look out the window, and okay, poke other kids.

Mo's parents had waved goodbye to their bright-eyed preschooler. Now they say hello to their dulled first grader. As bad, they say hello to a child whose teacher said needs to be evaluated for hyperactivity and Ritalin.

Mo's academic boredom continued off and on through elementary and middle school but perhaps more worthy of your time is to mention that, while verbally assertive, Mo was physically reticent, a dangerous combination when dealing with some pre-adolescents. So Mo was often bullied by seemingly heartless, even sadistic boys, and ostracized from the "in" girls' tight web. Capstoning all this, perhaps because Mo was slightly delayed in acquiring secondary sex characteristics—deeper voice, facial and body hair—gay boys often came on to him and when he said he wasn't gay, they insisted he was.

High school brought a new set of problems. This time, the academics were sometimes too difficult and certainly seeming more irrelevant. The new Common Core curriculum, heralded by educators and politicians as raising standards for all students, was perceived by many students as filled with hard irrelevancies.

For example, here are the first-listed objectives in the Common Core Standards for 9th-grade Algebra. Mo's most common thought throughout much of high school was, "Why do I need to know this? If I become an engineer or mathematician, I could learn that in college but I know I don't want to do anything with all this math in it."

Seeing Structure in Expressions

  • Interpret the structure of expressions
  • Write expressions in equivalent forms to solve problems
  • Arithmetic with polynomials and rational expressions
  • Perform arithmetic operations on polynomials
  • Understand the relationship between zeros and factors of polynomials
  • Use polynomial identities to solve problems
  • Rewrite rational expressions

Creating Equations

  • Create equations that describe numbers or relationships
  • Reasoning with equations and inequalities
  • Understand solving equations as a process of reasoning and explain the reasoning.
  • Solve equations and inequalities in one variable.
  • Solve systems of equations
  • Represent and solve equations and inequalities graphically

In high school, Mo took five or six academic courses per semester, some of which were Advanced Placement (college-level.) He did that because counselors, peers, and parents said it would help in getting into top colleges. He was also urged to go deep into and excel at one or more extracurriculars plus do community service. As a result, Mo was usually exhausted and overwhelmed.

And the social alienation continued, at least intermittently. He always felt outside the "in" crowd. Attractive girls wouldn't go out with him, and again there were false rumors that he was gay. While intellectually, he knew that there is nothing wrong with being gay, emotionally it felt bad to be so labeled, especially when he felt pretty sure he was heterosexual.

Mo did get into his first-choice college. He was sure he wouldn't—the college's publicly reported statistics suggested he was a long-shot. While Mo was scared it would be too hard, how could he turn down the prestige of a designer-label college? So he went.

But the combination of being one of the university's weaker students combined with today's colleges abandonment of in loco parentis resulted in Mo studying too little, downloading others' term papers from the internet, watching too many sports games, and staying up too late with his human and chemical "friends."

Some of Mo's courses even increased his sense of alienation—ripping American capitalism, American exceptionalism, white maleness (He is both.) The professors and the texts they assigned told him he was a beneficiary of white male privilege and of the Eurocentric hegemony. Yet, "I don't feel privileged. All I feel is attacked. And whatever privilege I have I feel I earned or my family earned for me. But the professors say I'm wrong. I don't know what to think."

Mo wanted to "take a break" after the first semester but his parents, not college-educated themselves but deep believers that education is "the answer," pushed and pushed him to stay, even though it was costing them a fortune and they knew he was hardly making the most of it. Mo's dad said to him, "It's like you're pulling up to the gas station, paying $40 but only putting $10-worth into your tank and driving away." But after two and a half years of college unhappiness, Mo could endure it no longer and dropped out.

Alas, after a year of being able to find no better job than barista, Mo reluctantly returned to school. Unfortunately, demotivated, the supposed 1 1/2 years Mo had to finish took him three years but finally—and $165,000 in debt—Mo graduated with a major in sociology and minor in American Studies.

When asked how he felt about his journey through school, Mo said, "It feels like two decades of waterboarding."

Now tortured by insecurity, the imposter syndrome, and memories of the 20 years of school trauma, Mo has become the stereotype; Uber driver, video games, girls, drinking, pot. But beneath the stereotype and the standard explanations—genetics, parenting, peer pressure, irresponsibility, and fear of failure—may lie an under-discussed explanation: school-induced post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Takeaway

Teachers, parents, and students: As mentioned up-front, this is a fictitious case and an extreme one but does any of it ring true to you? And if so, does it have any implications for what you might want to do differently?

For example, as a student, are you imposing pain on a classmate? As a teacher, are you contributing to students' too-pervasive boredom and/or believing the curriculum is irrelevant to their lives? As a parent, are you too quick to blame your child for what, at least in part, may be the schools' fault?


Is it possible to have PTSD from school? ›

Can attending an environment such as school cause PTSD? In my professional opinion, as a counsellor, absolutely believe it can. The NHS describes trauma (PTSD) as an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events.

Can trauma be caused by school? ›

School-related trauma (like bullying or unfair punishment) often leads to school avoidance, leaving the most vulnerable students behind academically. Trauma also negatively impacts young people's sense of self, making it difficult for those students to feel motivated, proud, and engaged in their learning.

Can academic pressure cause PTSD? ›

Higher Level of Academic Burnout Will Be Associated with Higher PTSD Symptoms.

What is the number one cause of PTSD? ›

The most common events leading to the development of PTSD include: Combat exposure. Childhood physical abuse. Sexual violence.

What triggers PTSD in school? ›

Yelling, and even speaking in an overly stern voice, can trigger trauma responses in students whether educators know about their trauma or not. This is true not only when it's directed at them but also when a teacher reprimands someone else.

What age is PTSD most common? ›

The typical onset age for PTSD is in young and middle adulthood. The NCS-R reported a median onset age of 23 (interquartile range: ages 15-39) among adults (Kessler et al., 2005).

Can school damage your mental health? ›

While school alone does not cause mental illness among youth, it is important for parents to recognize that certain school-related factors could trigger the onset of a mental health problem. For example, academic stress is a leading cause of mental health struggles in students.

What does trauma look like at school? ›

As we have learned reactions to trauma looks like many different things. In some children it may appear like an attention issue, in others it may appear that a student is lazy, or resistant. Some students may exhibit lethargy or other psycho-somatic symptoms (e.g. complain of stomach ache, headache, etc.)

How do I know if I have childhood trauma? ›

You might have difficulties trusting, low self-esteem, fears of being judged, constant attempts to please, outbursts of frustration, or social anxiety symptoms that won't let up. Can childhood trauma be healed?

What trauma is most likely to cause PTSD? ›

Types of events that can lead to PTSD include: serious accidents. physical or sexual assault. abuse, including childhood or domestic abuse.

Can PTSD come from anything? ›

Anyone can develop PTSD at any age. This includes combat veterans and people who have experienced or witnessed a physical or sexual assault, abuse, an accident, a disaster, a terror attack, or other serious events. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened, even when they are no longer in danger.

How to deal with school PTSD? ›

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.

Does PTSD ever go away? ›

PTSD symptoms usually appear soon after trauma. For most people, these symptoms go away on their own within the first few weeks and months after the trauma. For some, the symptoms can last for many years, especially if they go untreated. PTSD symptoms can stay at a fairly constant level of severity.

How rare is it to have PTSD? ›

About 5 out of every 100 adults (or 5%) in the U.S. has PTSD in any given year. In 2020, about 13 million Americans had PTSD. Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men. About 8 of every 100 women (or 8%) and 4 of every 100 men (or 4%) will have PTSD at some point in their life.

What can trigger PTSD flashbacks? ›

Flashbacks can be triggered by a sensory feeling, an emotional memory, a reminder of the event, or even an unrelated stressful experience. Identify the experiences that trigger your flashbacks. If possible, make a plan on how to avoid these triggers or how to cope if you encounter the trigger.

How do you know if a student has PTSD? ›

Students with PTSD may:
  1. seem irritable, anxious, cranky, or angry.
  2. seem detached or depressed.
  3. have problems paying attention or concentrating.
  4. have trouble eating or sleeping.
  5. may startle easily or be overly sensitive to noises, sights, or smells that remind them of the traumatic event.

What are the symptoms of PTSD in students? ›

The three symptom clusters for PTSD include re-experiencing (for children, this can repetitive play or re-enacting the trauma in play), numbing and avoidance (such as avoiding traumatic reminders and talking about trauma, not participating in activities previously enjoyed), and hyperarousal (such as irritability, anger ...

Can a 14 year old have PTSD? ›

PTSD can occur in teens who experience a traumatic event personally, are witness to a traumatic event, or in rare cases, hear about a trauma that has happened to a loved one.

Can a 12 year old get PTSD? ›

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem. It can affect people of all ages.

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