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What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder which develops after the experience of one or more traumatic events; those which pose or are perceived to pose serious threat to life, health or bodily integrity. PTSD can result from interpersonal violence, such as sexual or physical assault; life-threatening events such as accidents or illness; or longer-term exposure to traumatic living conditions, such as intimate partner violence or parental abuse.

Exposure to war and combat is another common cause of PTSD globally. Although this is likely to be less common among the student population at Cambridge, we recognise that it may still be relevant for some.


What are the effects?

PTSD can cause an array of symptoms, some of which are associated with reminders of trauma. Individuals with PTSD often experience flashbacks which can involve the visceral reliving of traumatic experiences, as though they are happening in that moment, as well as intrusive thoughts and images, nightmares, and panic at real or symbolic reminders of trauma.

These symptoms are painful to experience and greatly disruptive to the perception and processing of information in an academic setting - as well as potentially disruptive to other students. Thus, exposure to reminders of trauma in an educational setting without prior warning could have a detrimental impact on students' academic performance, as well as on their wellbeing.

After a lecturer described content relating to neglect and abuse of children, including playing a video of an interview of an adult describing (in detail) the abuse she suffered as a child, I had a flashback due to having PTSD from similar trauma.

When someone with PTSD has a flashback they relive the traumatic event to the extent that they feel like it is happening again, with accompanying behavioural change. I often look like I am having a seizure during flashbacks.

This happening during a lecture was disruptive to the teaching of the lecture itself and required individuals to step in and help me and therefore take time away from their lecture. I also found it incredibly distressing that a lecture hall filled with people I knew to varying degrees had seen me in that state - behaving as if I was experiencing the most horrifying events of my life.

Student interviewee, Psychology


How is PTSD managed?

Whilst professional treatment is usually required - though the structural and financial barriers to accessing this should be noted - people with PTSD can also employ a range of self-help strategies focused on reducing anxiety and staying 'grounded' in the present. Students who are exposed to traumatic material as part of their education are better able to employ these strategies when they have advance warning that they will be required.

Providing this advance warning is the goal of content notes.

Certain lecturers and supervisors would, upon request, inform me of sensitive material in advance so that I could best prepare myself to engage with this content. This meant that, for example, if I needed to ensure a friend could accompany me to a lecture or ask for the lecture to be recorded so that I could listen to it in my own room where I felt safer, I could prepare in advance.

Student interviewee, Psychology


Next: Other mental health conditions