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Trauma & Mental Health

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is not an event but a response to a stressful experience that can leave a person feeling hopeless, helpless, and fearful for his or her life, survival, and safety.

Studies estimate that two-thirds of all students experience a traumatic life event before the age of 16. Trauma can affect a student’s ability to learn, form relationships, and function appropriately in the classroom.

Grief vs trauma: Trauma is not the same as grief. Click the link at the left to see a chart that juxtaposes their differences (adapted from The National Institute of Trauma and Loss of Children).

Common Traumatic Experiences

Typically, traumatic experiences evoke feelings of extreme fear and helplessness. Some common examples include, but are not limited to, the following experiences:

  • child abuse and maltreatment,
  • school-related violence,
  • gang violence and threat,
  • criminal victimization,
  • medical trauma,
  • loss/death,
  • domestic violence,
  • community violence,
  • parent/self incarceration,
  • foster care/out-of-home placement,
  • parent divorce/separation, and
  • parent drug use.

It is important to note that everyone has different reactions to traumatic events. Reactions are based on one’s age, personal resiliency characteristics, and other supports in one’s life, to name a few. Therefore, not everyone who experiences traumatic events will be traumatized.

Trauma-Informed Care and the PBIS Framework

Trauma sensitive schools (TSS)

  • realize the prevalence of trauma in students' lives;
  • recognize the impact of trauma on academic and behavioral functioning;
  • respond by providing universal and multi-tiered supports that are sensitive to each student's unique needs; and
  • are mindful of creating policies, procedures, and practices that avoid re-traumatization.


Trauma sensitive schools (TSS) incorporate these five fundamental principles into the vision and fabric of their schools:

  1. School staff members must understand the prevalence of trauma for young people and the impact it can have on their behavior and learning.
  2. Staff members working in TSS adopt a perspective shift that enables them to see the behaviors of their students as a way to get a need met, rather than being compliant or disobedient. Only after this perspective shift is one truly trauma-informed.
  3. Staff members of TSS understand that relationships heal and build school connectedness. Relationships are also an important strategy for building trust with students who have been traumatized so that they feel safe in school. Staff takes the time to get to know all students, regardless of their behaviors, in an effort to help them heal from difficulties or make them feel that they belong in school. TSS also understand that academic and personal achievement is optimal when students have healthy relationships with adults and peers.
  4. Caregiver capacity also needs to be addressed in providing a collaborative staff climate in which the staff is supportive of one another and works as a team. Staffs at TSS are also encouraged to engage in regular self-care to remediate the effects of vicarious trauma and teacher burnout in order to prevent compassion fatigue, the loss of empathy for those in your care.
  5. TSS encourage empowerment and resiliency to make students feel safe in school through interventions that teach students how to use sensory input to stay calm, using sensory calming strategies in a self-regulated way. They also use programs schoolwide that incorporate four domains of resiliency: relationships, self-regulation, academic competence, and health and wellness. TSS ensure that all prevention and intervention strategies or programs incorporate these four areas, focusing on educating the whole child, rather than just focusing on academic instruction. Educators working in TSS also take the time to personally reflect on the cultural relevance and sensitivity of their practices to ensure that school programs and interventions do not traumatize or re-traumatize students.

All interventions can be delivered using the framework for PBIS:

  • Tier 1: classroom-wide intervention within the four domains of resiliency listed above
  • Tier 2: small-group focus on alleviating mild symptoms or reinforcing interventions at Tier 1 (application)
  • Tier 3: intensive ongoing individual supports

Again, to ensure intervention effectiveness, school staffs need to experience a perspective shift from perceiving behavior as a way to manipulate or act disobediently to seeing behavior as a way to communicate needs and get needs met. The fidelity of interventions is not reliable without training. Please contact the Violence Prevention Team (see below) for enquiries regarding schoolwide training.


Mental Health

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.

Many factors contribute to mental health problems, including

  • biological factors, such as genes or brain chemistry;
  • life experiences, such as trauma or abuse; and
  • family history of mental health problems.

Mental health problems are common, but help is available.

Early Warning Signs

Experiencing one or more of the following feelings or behaviors can be an early warning sign of a problem:

  • eating or sleeping too much or too little;
  • pulling away from people and usual activities;
  • having low or no energy;
  • feeling numb or like nothing matters;
  • having unexplained aches and pains;
  • feeling helpless or hopeless;
  • smoking, drinking, or using drugs more than usual;
  • feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried, or scared;
  • yelling or fighting with family and friends;
  • experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships;
  • having persistent thoughts and memories you can’t get out of your head;
  • hearing voices or believing things that are not true;
  • thinking of harming yourself or others; and
  • inability to perform daily tasks such as taking care of your kids or getting to work or school.

Learn more about specific mental health problems and where to find help.

View the National Alliance on Mental Illness website for a list of mental conditions.


Wisconsin DPI Mental Health Framework

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has developed a School Mental Health Framework that provides guidance to districts on implementing a comprehensive school mental health system within PBIS.

The School Mental Health Framework is designed to help schools better address the estimated one in five children and adolescents in Wisconsin who will experience a significant mental health issue during the course of their school career. These mental health issues can act as a barrier to school success, hindering a student's ability to reach his or her full academic potential. By addressing this barrier, schools can create an environment in which students are more engaged in learning and are better prepared to enter the workforce or go to college after graduation.

The Wisconsin School Mental Health Framework is designed to easily integrate into existing multilevel systems of support (MLSS). Key elements of this framework include collaboration with community mental health providers, co-planning with families, and the creation of school improvement initiatives that focus on wellness and mental health. By incorporating mental health initiatives with MLSS, schools will be better equipped to promote social and emotional learning for all students, respond to student needs through effective interventions, and deepen collaborative relationships with families and community agencies. Read more and access the report:


Mental Health Classroom Activities

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  Destigmatize mental health

Research indicates the stigmatization of mental health is one of the primary reasons that many do not seek help when they are experiencing mental health issues. As a class, explore students' values and beliefs in relation to mental health.

Mental Health Continuum Activity from

Continuum Cards for Activity

Busting Mental Health Myths Activities

Understanding Key Characteristics of Mental Illness (from

  Get to know yourself and others

Invite students to identify their own special qualities and then learn about special qualities.

Encourage students to recognize and articulate what they have in common with others and what is unique about themselves and others.

Activity from Minnesota Assocation for Children's Mental Health

Activity from Minnesota Assocation for Children's Mental Health

  Express your feelings in print

Have students express their feelings in a picture format. Have students brainstorm ways (verbally, written down, or in pictures) to feel better or to help someone else who is feeling down to feel better.

  Discuss traits of book characters

When reading a book, have students name the traits of a character that are strengths and weaknesses of this character. Discuss how these traits are present throughout the book and how the character uses these traits in his or her relationships with others.

  Practice empathy

Encourage empathy among students by helping students recognize the emotions of another person.

Activity from Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health

  Discuss other viewpoints

Encourage students to see situations from other viewpoints and to share their viewpoint with others.

Activity from Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health


ALGEE is a mnemonic device for Mental Health First Aid's five-step action plan for when you believe someone is experiencing symptoms of mental illness. These actions are not necessarily steps to be followed in a fixed order. One should use good judgment about the order and the relevance.

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  Assess for risk of suicide or harm

When helping a person who is going through a mental health crisis, it is important to look for signs of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, non-suicidal self-injury, or other harm. Some warning signs of suicide include

  • threatening to hurt or kill oneself;
  • seeking access to means to hurt or kill oneself;
  • talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide;
  • feeling hopeless;
  • acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities;
  • increased use of alcohol or drugs;
  • withdrawing from family, friends, or society;
  • appearing agitated or angry; or
  • having a dramatic change in mood.

Always seek emergency medical help if the person’s life is in immediate danger. If you have reason to believe someone may be actively suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

  Listen nonjudgmentally

It may seem simple, but the ability to listen and have a meaningful conversation requires skill and patience. Listening is critical in helping an individual feel respected, accepted, and understood. Mental Health First Aid teaches you to use a set of verbal and nonverbal skills such as open body posture, comfortable eye contact, and other strategies to engage in appropriate conversation.

  Give reassurance and information

It is important to recognize that mental illnesses and addictions are real, treatable illnesses from which people can and do recover. When talking to someone you believe may be experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, approach the conversation with respect and dignity and don’t blame the individual for his or her symptoms. Mental Health First Aid provides information and resources you can offer to someone to provide emotional support and practical help.

  Encourage appropriate professional help

There are many professionals who can offer help when someone is in crisis or may be experiencing the signs and symptoms of a mental illness or addiction.

  • Types of professionals
    • Certified peer specialists
    • Social workers, counselors, and other mental health professionals
    • Doctors (primary care physicians or psychiatrists)
  • Types of professional help
    • “Talk” therapies
    • Medication
    • Other professional supports

The Mental Health First Aid course provides a variety of local and national resources to connect individuals in need to care.

  Encourage self-help and other support strategies

Individuals with mental illness can contribute to their own recovery and wellness through

  • exercise,
  • relaxation and meditation,
  • participating in peer support groups,
  • self-help books based on cognitive behavioral therapy, and
  • engaging with family, friends, faith, and other social networks.

Violence Prevention Program 


6620 West Capital Drive

Milwaukee, WI 53216


Director of the Department of Research, Assessment, and Data:

Dr. Melanie Stewart
Phone: 414-475-8751


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