Understanding trauma


This activity by CoMC partner, The Asian International Justice Initiative (AIJI) in Cambodia, is intended to help students understand the deeply contextual nature of trauma and its ongoing impacts. At the initial workshop the activity focused predominantly on the trauma experienced by Cambodians as a result of the Pol Pot regime between 1975-1979 but the activity can be used to examine the nature of trauma in a number of different contexts.

In introducing the aims and outcomes of this session, the following should be noted:

  • It is important for students undertaking international mobility activities to understand that people with whom they work may have been affected by trauma.
  • The aim of this activity is to help students understand the nature of trauma, its causes and manifestations and to understand the contextual nature of these elements in specific country contexts.
  • This activity draws on students’ own prior knowledge, relevant psychological literature and the perspectives of partners from countries affected by various forms of trauma.
  • Care should be taken to avoid any potential anxiety which the activity might trigger in individual students.  Facilitators should caution students prior to the activity.


45 minutes to 1 hour


  • Post-it notes or small pieces of paper
  • Pens or pencils
  • Butcher’s paper
  • Factsheet: Trauma in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-V): Factsheet_Trauma in the DSM-V
  • Videos:
  1. Voices Across 2 Ages (Cambodia)
  2. The Sunken Graves (Sabah, Malaysia)

The process

1. Divide into three groups. (Or, if in a very large group, into six groups.)

2. Provide each group with post-it notes and pens.

3. Ask each group (or two groups) to answer one of the following questions, first individually, by writing their thoughts on a post-it note, and then discussing it within the small group.

4. Questions:

  • What is trauma?
  • What causes trauma?
  • How does trauma manifest?

5. Ask each group to report back to the larger group.

6. Discuss the similarities and differences between the responses.

7. Examine the definitions in the DSM-V of trauma, traumatic events and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

8. Discuss whether these definitions map onto students’ views and experiences.

9. Examine accounts given of trauma in the video links above, examining the country- and culture-specific contexts. Discuss whether the DSM-V definitions map onto these, and why or why not. (Think in particular about the DSM’s context, and definition of a traumatic event, as compared to those of the people in the videos.)

10. Discuss what this might mean for students’ interactions in-country.

‘Voices Across 2 Ages’

A 6-part documentary series in which three Cambodian students meet three victims of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. They discuss forgiveness, the purpose of the Khmer Rouge trials and the future of Cambodia.

‘The Sunken Graves’

The residents of Tampasak sacrificed their village for the benefit of the people of Kota Kinabalu. Tampasak was home to Indigenous people, and fulfilled their daily needs with the availability of natural resources. It had also been supplied with basic amenities by the government. Tampasak has now been flooded due to the construction of a dam. Although the villagers protested against the building of the dam, eventually they were forced to comply with the order to relocate to a new area by the State government, who promised them compensation. To this day, the sacrifice of the villagers has not been compensated by those responsible.