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Childhood Trauma, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse: What We Do M akes a Difference. Dale Gasparovic, MSEd . Student Assistance Center Administrator Student Assistance Center at Prevention First. Substance Use and The Effects of Trauma.

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childhood trauma mental health and substance abuse what we do m akes a difference

Childhood Trauma, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse: What We Do Makes a Difference

Dale Gasparovic, MSEd.

Student Assistance Center Administrator

Student Assistance Center at Prevention First

substance use and the effects of trauma
Substance Use and The Effects of Trauma
  • In an epidemiological study, researchers found a moderate overall co-occurrence of PTSD and substance abuse, with rates ranging from 13.5% to 29.7% (Kilpatrick, Ruggiero, Acierno, Saunders, Resnick, & Best, 2003). In this sample:

— 29.7% of males and 24.4% of females who met diagnostic criteria for PTSD also met diagnostic criteria for either substance abuse or dependence

— 13.5% of males and 24.8% of females who met criteria for a substance use disorder also met diagnostic criteria for PTSD

  • In a sample of New Zealand teens (Fergusson & Horwood, 1998), rates of substance use disorders were:

— 17 - 35% among teens who witnessed domestic violence

— 10 - 15% among those who did not witness domestic violence

substance use and the effects of trauma1
Substance Use and The Effects of Trauma
  • In a study (Deykin & Buke, 1997) of chemically dependent adolescents in treatment for substance abuse:

— lifetime prevalence rates of PTSD: 29.6% (24.3% for males and 45.3% for females)

— current prevalence rates of PTSD: 19.2% (12.2% for males and 40.0% for females)

— lifetime prevalence of trauma exposure: 73% of males and 80% of females.

  • In a study of adolescents seeking outpatient services for marijuana abuse or dependency, 14% of adolescents presenting for treatment met criteria for PTSD (Diamond, Panichelli-Mindel, Shera, Dennis, Tims, & Ungemack, 2006).
what we do makes a difference
What We Do Makes A Difference
  • Monitor symptoms over time

Children and adolescents will have distinct individual variations in responses following a traumatic event. It is therefore important for teachers to:

    • Be familiar with the types of reactions that young people can have after exposure to a traumatic event.
    • Remain vigilant and curious about changes in behavior of any of the students in your classroom.
    • Consider referral for further assistance if the student’s emotional or behavioral difficulties are a change in functioning from before the disaster, continue for longer than one month and/or get worse over time.
  • Maintain routines
    • Most children respond well to structured environments with clear goals, timelines and activities. Therefore, continuing with familiar school routines is particularly important following a natural disaster. Routine helps to maintain consistency and predictability in one area of the child’s life and thereby reduces unnecessary stress and improves feelings of safety.
    • Ensure that students are aware of upcoming events and classroom activities. This may involve setting an agenda at the beginning of the day, week, or month and reminding children of this. For older children and teenagers, it is important to give advance notice of deadlines and major events, so they can plan for these events.
  • Talk about the traumatic event

There is often a common misconception that talking about the traumatic event can cause more problems, or cause the young person to develop distress reactions. Although it is important to consider how you talk to the young person who has experienced trauma (and what sort of reactions and coping strategies you model), talking about the traumatic event and the young person’s feelings DOES NOT generally cause the child to develop problems.

what we do makes a difference1
What We Do Makes A Difference
  • Set clear and firm limits/expectations of behavior

Concentration difficulties, acting out and misbehaving are all common reactions to trauma, but are also generally common behaviors in young people. Therefore it s always important to explore the origins of problem behavior before jumping to conclusions about diagnosis or implementing consequences or discipline strategies.

It is important to:

• Maintain expectations relating to schoolwork and behavior. Rather, make adjustments where necessary to the way you deliver classroom activities (e.g. change to 15 or 30 minute blocks and incorporate physical activity in between to stimulate attention and concentration).

• Set clear expectations of behaviors and communicate these to students.

• Implement logical and realistic consequences when expectations of behaviors are not met.

  • Use a ‘buddy’ or ‘support’ system

If not already in place, teachers can implement a buddy system whereby students are paired with other students to ensure that each student has a support person while at school. A buddy or support system might be useful for various classroom activities (eg, going to the bathroom, relaxation time, group activities). Over time, buddy systems can be turned into more ‘support’ or ‘companionship/friendship’ systems, whereby children are encouraged to use their buddy as sources of emotional or academic support.

what we do makes a difference2
What We Do Makes A Difference
  • 4
  • Safe ‘relaxation’ spaces

All classrooms can benefit from having safe spaces that are specifically for young people to use when they are experiencing difficulties in the classroom. These areas can be used when children or adolescents need some time to calm themselves down, or if the teacher needs some time to talk to students individually. Placing some comforting children’s books or quiet activities in this space will give children something else to focus on while they take some time out from the demands of the classroom.

  • Provide choices – regain control

Often, during the traumatic event or the subsequent events that follow, young people may feel a sense of powerlessness or loss of control. One strategy that might help children regain feelings of control is to provide them with choices or input into some classroom activities.

Examples of ways in which children can be offered choices or be involved in decision making:

• Providing suggestions regarding fun classroom activities

• Choosing between various classroom activities

• Choosing between assignment topics

• Helping to select and organize fund-raising activities

what we do makes a difference3
What We Do Makes A Difference
  • Anticipate difficult times and plan ahead

Children and adolescents may re-experience some of their symptoms, or experience some distress at important milestones (e.g. anniversaries of the event, birthdays of lost family members, holiday times). Where possible, it may be a good idea to plan ahead and pre-empt these occasions and provide support where appropriate.

  • Prepare children and adolescents for situations which may trigger reactions

Some young people might still be affected by sudden and significant events or triggers. It can be useful for teachers to warn or prepare children for any sudden events (e.g. warn about upcoming fire drills, turning off lights, loud noises). For older children and adolescents, it may be useful for teachers to anticipate upcoming events which may trigger responses in youth. For example, teachers may be able to prepare students in advance regarding upcoming assignments or activities (eg, discussion of natural disasters, science class which discusses concepts related to flooding). In these instances, some young people might need to be given alternative activities they can partake in.

what we do makes a difference4
What We Do Makes A Difference
  • Focus on strengths and positives

Acknowledging and reinforcing strengths, positive behaviors and coping strategies can be a particularly important and EASY strategy for teachers to practice and implement. This can be as simple as offering praise to students when you notice a positive behavior, or personal strength they have developed or demonstrated.

  • Help students to build a support system

One of the most distressing outcomes following a natural disaster is the loss of community. It is important for children and teenagers to build a strong support system.

Teachers can help young people to identify who they can talk to about difficult situations and any problems they are having (e.g. teacher, student welfare coordinator, youth worker or school counselor, principal nurse, sports teacher).

programs for early recovery
Programs for Early Recovery
  • UCLA Trauma-Grief Curriculum (2003)Target Population: 12-to-18 year olds Contact: Bill Saltzman, Ph.D.Miller Children's Abuse and Violence Intervention

This is an 8-10 session program that is suitable for either individual or group applications in clinical or school settings. The manual provides detailed descriptions of the sessions, focusing on trauma psychoeducation, activities to enhance emotional awareness, identification of personal trauma/grief symptoms and trauma/loss reminders, development of a personal set of coping skills, and how to access different types of support. These sessions make up the first module of a comprehensive four module program that also covers more intensive interventions for moderately and severely distressed students. It has been used extensively in the U.S. and abroad.

  • The Trauma Center Community Services Program (2002)Target Population: aged 8 to 15Contact: Robert Macy, Ph.D.The Trauma Center - Massachusetts Mental Health

This is a structured program that is appropriate for group or classroom administration. It uses expressive art, music, and movement techniques to build safety and trust among group members. Extensive psychoeducation on threat and trauma is offered with a broad range of coping skills in a playful and engaging manner. This program has been widely implemented in the United States and abroad and has demonstrated effectiveness in reducing post-traumatic distress and improving functioning at school and in interpersonal relationships. The program requires approximately 10 sessions.

programs for early recovery1
Programs for Early Recovery
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS)Target Population: 5th to 8th graders, 11- to 15-year-oldsContact: Marleen Wong, Ph.D.Los Angeles Unified School District Crisis Counseling and Trauma Servicesmarleenw@usc.eduAudra Langley, Ph.D.UCLA Child OCD, Anxiety and Tic Disorders Program, Trauma Services Adaptation Center for Schools and

CBITS, a 10-session, school-based, group treatment program, has been implemented in elementary and middle schools across the country, with bilingual (Spanish, Russian, Armenian, and Korean) and multicultural urban and rural populations as well as Native American groups. CBITS is appropriate for students who have experienced a wide range of violence, such as home and community violence, trauma due to accidents and disasters, and trauma involving significant loss. The CBITS manual, with session-by-session descriptions of activities for each session, is available at This program has been studied extensively and has been shown in a randomized control trial to reduce symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. An intensive two-day training and consultation is available through the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Trauma Services Adaptation Center for Schools and Communities.

  • There is a slightly different version of this called Support for Students Exposed to Trauma(SSET) which is designed for school personnel to implement. Available from Rand Corporation