Learn about the different kinds of traumatic events that can impact the behavioral health of individuals, families, and communities.
Traumatic events can include physical and sexual abuse, neglect, bullying, community-based violence, disaster, terrorism, and war.
SAMHSA’s TIP 57: Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services – 2014 and SAMHSA’s National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s Types of Traumatic Stress webpage provide in-depth information about the many different kinds of trauma and violence.
Sexual Abuse or Assault
Sexual abuse or assault includes unwanted or coercive sexual contact, exposure to age-inappropriate sexual material or environments, and sexual exploitation. The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office on Violence Against Women defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”
Physical abuse or assault is defined as the actual or attempted infliction of physical pain (with or without the use of an object or weapon), including the use of severe corporeal punishment. Federal law defines child abuse as any act, or failure to act, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation of a child.
Emotional Abuse or Psychological Maltreatment
Emotional abuse and psychological maltreatment are considered acts of commission (other than physical or sexual abuse) against an individual. These kinds of acts, which include verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and excessive demands or expectations, may cause an individual to experience conduct, cognitive, affective, or other mental disturbances. These acts also include acts of omission against a minor such as emotional neglect or intentional social deprivation, which cause, or could cause, a child to experience conduct, cognitive, affective, or other mental disturbances.
Neglect is the most common form of abuse reported to child welfare authorities. However, it does not occur only with children. It can also happen when a primary caregiver fails to give an adult the care they need, even though the caregiver can afford to, or has the help to do so. Neglect also includes the failure to provide an individual with basic needs such as food, clothing, or shelter. It can also mean not providing medical or mental health treatment or prescribed medicines. Neglect also includes exposing someone to dangerous environments, abandoning a person, or expelling them from home.
Serious Accident, Illness, or Medical Procedure
Trauma can occur when a person experiences an unintentional injury or accident, a physical illness, or medical procedures that are extremely painful and/or life threatening.
According to DOJ’s Office on Violence Against Women, domestic violence is defined as: “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.” Domestic violence includes violence and abuse by current or former intimate partners, parents, children, siblings, and other relatives.
For information on the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) work with domestic violence, visit the Administration for Children and Families’ Family and Youth Services Bureau.
Victim or Witness to Community Violence
Extreme violence in the community, including exposure to gang-related violence, interracial violence, police and citizen altercations, and other forms of destructive individual and group violence is a recognized form of trauma.
Historical trauma is a form of trauma that impacts entire communities. It refers to the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, as a result of group traumatic experiences, that is transmitted across generations within a community. Unresolved grief and anger often accompany this trauma and contribute to physical and behavioral health disorders. This type of trauma is often associated with racial and ethnic population groups in the United States who have suffered major intergenerational losses and assaults on their culture and well-being.
School violence is described as violence that occurs in a school setting and includes, but is not limited to, school shootings, bullying, interpersonal violence among classmates, and student suicide. Youth violence is a serious problem that can have lasting harmful effects on victims and their families, friends, and communities
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may experience serious, lasting problems. Trauma can be a consequence of bullying, which can lead to mental health issues, substance use, and suicide, particularly if there is a prior history of depression or delinquency.
Natural or Manmade Disasters
Trauma can result from a major accident or disaster that is an unintentional result of a manmade or natural event. Disasters can occur naturally (such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, wildfires, mudslides, or drought) or be human-caused (such as mass shootings, chemical spills, or terrorist attacks).
Forced displacement is a traumatic event that occurs when people face political persecution and are forced to relocate to a new home (as an immigrant or through political asylum) or become a refugee.
War, Terrorism, or Political Violence
Exposure to acts of war-, terrorism-, or political-related violence such as bombing, shooting, and looting can cause trauma in an individual.
Military trauma refers to both the impact of deployment and trauma-related stress on people who are deployed and their families. Significant numbers of returning service men and women experience mental and/or substance use disorders associated with military trauma and/or military sexual trauma.
Victim or Witness to Extreme Personal or Interpersonal Violence
This type of trauma includes extreme violence by or between individuals including exposure to homicide, suicide, and other extreme events.
Traumatic Grief or Separation
Traumatic grief and/or separation may include the death of a parent, primary caretaker, or sibling; abrupt and/or unexpected, accidental, or premature death or homicide of a close friend, family member, or other close relative; abrupt, unexplained and/or indefinite separation from a parent, primary caretaker, or sibling due to uncontrollable circumstances.
System-Induced Trauma and Retraumatization
Many systems that are designed to help individuals and families can actually cause trauma. For example, in child welfare systems, abrupt removal from the home, foster placement, sibling separation, or multiple placements in a short amount of time can retraumatize children. In mental health systems, the use of seclusion and restraint on previously traumatized individuals can revive memories of trauma. Further, invasive medical procedures on a trauma victim can re-induce traumatic reactions.