Abuse, trauma, and mental health
Abuse, whether physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual, can have long-term effects on your mental health. Trauma can affect how you feel about yourself and how you relate to others. Women who have gone through abuse or other trauma have a higher risk of developing a mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma and abuse are never your fault. You can get help to heal the physical, mental, and emotional scars of trauma and abuse.
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.1 Experiencing abuse or other trauma puts people at risk of developing mental health conditions, such as:
- Anxiety disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Misusing alcohol or drugs
- Borderline personality disorder
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:2
- Severe anxiety, stress, or fear
- Abuse of alcohol or drugs
- Eating disorders
Learn more about abuse and trauma and their effects on your health in our Relationships and Safety section.
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.3 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.
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.4 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.4,5
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 (PDF, 329 KB) 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 (PDF, 168 KB).
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:
- Trouble sleeping
- 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.
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.
Did we answer your question about abuse, trauma, and mental health?
For more information about abuse, trauma, and mental health, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662 or check out the following resources and organizations:
- Coping with Traumatic Events — Information from the National Institute of Mental Health, including tips and resources for adults, parents, and aid workers for dealing with or helping others cope with the effects of trauma.
- Dealing with the Effects of Trauma: A Self-Help Guide (PDF, 95 KB) — Booklet from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
- Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office — Information and resources for military members about sexual assault.
- Emotional and Psychological Trauma — Information from HelpGuide.org.
- Military Sexual Trauma — Information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
- National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health
- Tips for College Students: After a Disaster or Other Trauma — Fact sheet from SAMHSA.
- Trauma and Violence — Information from SAMHSA.
- Women Veterans Health Care — Information from the VA.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2014). SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. HHS Publication No. SMA 14-4884. Rockville, MD: SAMHSA.
- Krug, E.G., Dahlberg, L.L., Mercy, J.A., Zwi, A.B., Lozano, R. (2002). World report on violence and health (PDF, 1.8 MB). Geneva: World Health Organization.
- Seal, K.H., Bertenthal, D., Miner, C.R., Sen, S., Marmar, C. (2007). Bringing the War Back Home: Mental Health Disorders Among 103 788 US Veterans Returning From Iraq and Afghanistan Seen at Department of Veterans Affairs Facilities. Archives of Internal Medicine; 167(5): 476–482.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2015). Military Sexual Trauma.
- Barlas, F.M., Higgins, W.B., Pflieger, J.C. (2013). 2011 Department of Defense Health Related Behaviors Survey of Active Duty Military Personnel (PDF, 3.7 MB). Fairfax, VA: Department of Defense.