Many of us think post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a rare psychological problem. In reality, PTSD can affect anyone – and, looking into the findings of a new study, the real surprise is that the number of people affected isn’t higher.
King’s College London conducted in-depth interviews with 2,064 18-year-olds in UK. They were asked about trauma exposure, risk events, functional impairment such as social isolation, and whether they’d suffered other psychopathology such as anxiety or depression.
The results are not encouraging. Nearly a third had been exposed to trauma, and nearly one in four went on to develop PTSD, a disorder characterised by recurrent intrusive memories and/or nightmares, avoidance of any reminders of the trauma, and persistent feelings of guilt, isolation, detachment, irritability, and/or an inability to concentrate.
Moreover, when Lewis compared rates of psychological disorder across the subgroups, she found those who’d experienced trauma were twice as likely to develop other psychological problems as well. Compared with individuals who’d not experienced trauma, PTSD sufferers were, for example, more than three times more likely to suffer a major depressive episode and six times more liable to self-harm. Yet less than a third had seen a mental health professional in the last year.
There’s no doubt we need to improve access to psychological services when so many young people are reporting trauma, yet so few have obtained professional help.
According to this study’s criteria (taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), trauma is defined as “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence; either directly, as a witness, or by learning it happened to a loved one or friend”. Given the vast amount of (often unregulated) information we can access digitally, this figure makes sense – indeed, it makes you wonder if it’s high enough.
If, therefore, you or a loved one experience trauma at some point, what can you do to avoid additional problems?
Create an atmosphere of acceptance and trust when you’re together. When the distressed person wants to talk, put aside your other activities and listen non-judgmentally, and calmly. Encourage them, but try not to probe. If you are the sufferer, seek someone you can trust who will listen.
If you or the person you’re concerned about shows symptoms of PTSD, seek professional help. Both trauma and PTSD can be treated using one of several psychotherapeutic approaches.
The Daily Telegraph