Abuse, trauma, and mental health facts*

Suffering trauma can have long-term effects on your emotional, mental, and physical health.

Suffering trauma can have long-term effects on your emotional, mental, and physical health.

*Abuse, trauma, and mental health facts written by Charles P. Davis, MD, PhD

  • Experiencing abuse or trauma may put your mental health at risk for anxiety, fear, drug and/or alcohol abuse, depression, eating disorders, self-injury, and suicide.
  • Traumatic experiences in the military (for example, experiencing combat deaths, incoming gunfire, viewing the effects of explosions) can be related to mental health problems.
  • Military sexual trauma means sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment while the victim is in the military (includes men and women, but women are at higher risk).
  • Symptoms of past abuse or trauma include
  • If you or someone you know has suffered abuse or trauma and is in danger from themselves or others, call 911 immediately. Getting professional help is good advice for anyone who has mental health problems.
  • Abuse and trauma are usually treated with types of talk therapy, medicines. or both.

How are abuse and trauma related to mental health?

Trauma can happen after you experience an event or events that hurt you physically or emotionally. Trauma can have lasting effects on your mental, physical, and emotional health. Experiencing abuse or other trauma puts people at risk of developing mental health conditions, such as:

Abuse may have happened during childhood or as an adult. It can be emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual. Trauma can include dangerous, frightening, or extremely stressful situations or events, such as sexual assault, war, an accident or natural disaster, the sudden or violent death of a close loved one, or a serious physical health problem.

The long-term effects of abuse or trauma can include:

How can being in the military affect my mental health?

If you were or are in the military, you may have experienced or witnessed a life-threatening event. You may have been on missions that exposed you to traumatic combat-related experiences, such as incoming fire, explosive devices, or dead bodies. Other military experiences, like military sexual trauma, can also affect mental health.

About 1 in 4 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been diagnosed with a mental health condition, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Left untreated, mental health issues can cause long-term problems for you, your family, and your community. Reach out to someone for help if you’re experiencing the signs of a mental health condition.

PTSD symptoms and signs include preoccupation with the perpetrator, dissociation, and difficulty regulating feelings.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an emotional illness classified as a trauma- and stressor-related disorder as of the most recent edition of the diagnostic reference for mental health disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5 or DSM-V). Prior to this most recent edition, PTSD was classified as an anxiety disorder in the DSM-4 (DSM-IV). This condition usually develops because of a terribly frightening, life-threatening, or otherwise highly unsafe experience. PTSD sufferers re-experience the traumatic event or events in some way, tend to avoid places, people, or other things that remind them of the event (avoidance), and are exquisitely sensitive to normal life experiences (hyperarousal). Although this condition has likely existed since human beings have endured trauma, PTSD has only been recognized as a formal diagnosis since 1980. However, it was called by different names as early as the American Civil War, when combat veterans were referred to as suffering from “soldier’s heart.” In World War I, the military referred to symptoms that were generally consistent with this syndrome as “combat fatigue.” Soldiers who developed such symptoms in World War II were said to be suffering from “gross stress reaction,” and many troops in Vietnam who had symptoms of what is now called PTSD were assessed as having “post-Vietnam syndrome.” “Battle fatigue” and “shell shock” are other names for PTSD.

What is military sexual trauma?

Military sexual trauma (MST) is a term used by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to describe sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that happens while the victim is in the military. MST can happen to both men and women, but female service members are at higher risk of MST. MST can also lead to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. Studies show that 1 in 4 or 5 women in the military experiences MST.

MST can happen during war, peace, or training. It can happen between people of the same sex or different sexes. If you’ve experienced MST, you may feel fear, shame, anger, embarrassment, or guilt. You may have trouble trusting people. You may even have physical symptoms like headaches, diarrhea, chronic fatigue, or gynecological problems.

When you’re actively serving, it can be difficult to report or talk about MST. The Department of Defense (DoD) has two ways for you to report assault if you are on active duty:

  • Restricted reporting lets you confidentially report the assault to someone and get medical treatment and counseling, but it won’t trigger an actual investigation. This is intended to make it easier to report an assault and to give you time to heal mentally and physically. You can decide later if you want the military to begin a criminal investigation.
  • Unrestricted reporting means that you will still receive medical treatment and counseling, but the assault will be reported through your chain of command. It will trigger an investigation.

If you have been assaulted or are unsure about what to do, you can call a confidential helpline that works specifically with the DoD community: the Safe Helpline. Call 877-995-5247, or visit safehelpline.org.

If you have experienced MST, you can also contact your nearest VA facility to speak with the MST coordinator. VA facilities have health care providers who are trained to treat the effects of MST. Many have specialized outpatient mental health services focusing on sexual trauma.

You may also be able to get compensation from the military to help with treatment.


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How do I know if my mental health is affected by past abuse or trauma?

It can be difficult to tell whether or how much your mental health is affected by past abuse or trauma. Sometimes the symptoms of trauma or abuse don’t start to affect your life for many months or years after the event took place. If you have any of the following symptoms, talk to your doctor or nurse or reach out for help:

  • Anxiety
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Changes in mood or appetite
  • Abusing drugs or alcohol

What should I do if I’ve been abused or traumatized?

The sooner you can get professional help for abuse or trauma, the sooner you can begin to get better. If you have been physically hurt, visit a hospital or doctor right away. You may also need to call the police. The doctor and the police can help document what has happened to you. This documentation may be important later if you decide to press charges against someone who attacked you.

If you are experiencing changes in how you think, feel, or behave that are interfering with your ability to work or live your life normally, reach out to a mental health professional. Find a mental health professional near you. A mental health professional can help make sense of any symptoms you may be having that are related to your abuse or trauma. The professional can help you find the best kinds of treatment to help manage symptoms of the abuse or trauma.

If you’re in immediate danger, call 911.

You can also call helplines to talk about what happened to you or get guidance about what to do:

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline
    Phone Number: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline
    Phone Number: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
  • Safe Helpline (for members of the military)
    Phone Number: 1-877-995-5247

Abuse or trauma you have suffered is not your fault. You can get better with treatment.

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How are abuse and trauma treated?

Symptoms caused by abuse or trauma can usually be treated with different types of talk therapy, medicine, or both. Therapy with a professional counselor can help you work through your feelings and learn healthy ways to cope. Medicines might include antidepressants or anti-anxiety medicine.

Today, complementary mind and body therapies, such as mindfulness and yoga, may be offered along with traditional treatments such as medicines and therapy.


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Medically Reviewed on 1/27/2020


United States. Office on Women’s Health. “Abuse, Trauma, and Mental Health.” Aug. 28, 2018. <https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/abuse-trauma-and-mental-health>.