Last week on this blog, I talked about some of the recent findings I’ve come across on the topic of veterans and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This is an especially exciting time in the field of PTSD research, as fascinating studies of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are being published all the time.
While it’s terrible that anyone has to endure the horrors of PTSD, the condition has been recognized as something affecting soldiers since World War I, when it was called “shell shock syndrome.” But what many people may not realize is that there are significant segments of the civilian population in the United States who are just as likely to develop PTSD as soldiers returning from combat in the Middle East.
PTSD Plaguing Inner City Neighborhoods
Last week, ProPublica reported that around 30% of residents living in impoverished, high-crime urban neighborhoods suffer from PTSD. Many residents in these neighborhoods have been victims of physical or sexual assault, or have had a friend or relative who was murdered – traumas so significant and frequent that those subjected to them develop PTSD at the same rate as soldiers who’ve been to war.
Dr. Kerry Ressler is lead investigator of a PTSD study at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, one of the country’s busiest trauma centers. “The rates of PTSD we see are as high or higher than Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam veterans,” she told ProPublica. “We have a whole population who is traumatized.”
Civilian PTSD sufferers face the same types of symptoms as veterans. These include:
- Flashbacks and nightmares
- Avoidance and social withdrawal
- Emotional numbing
- Self-destructive behavior such as substance abuse
- Higher risk of suicide
Additionally, some subgroups of PTSD sufferers are more prone to violence or committing crimes, which can pose a public safety risk, particularly in already crime-ridden neighborhoods.
Unlike veterans, however, inner city residents don’t typically have access to adequate care to cope with their traumas, and unfortunately, most cases go undiagnosed. In light of the growing field of research suggesting that poor urban neighborhoods are more vulnerable to PTSD, some hospitals in these areas have begun to implement programs to address the issue, such as PTSD screenings. However, tight budgets and lack of outside funding, particularly in the southern United States, have prevented many hospitals from implementing such programs.
PTSD and the General Population
While PTSD rates in violent neighborhoods are strikingly high, it’s also worth mentioning that rates of PTSD among the general population are not insignificant. According to the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 7-8% of the population will have PTSD at some point in their lives, and around 5 million adults in the US are suffering from PTSD in a given year. Additionally, as women are more likely to develop the disorder, an estimated 10% of women will face PTSD in their lifetimes.
Despite the fact that a good deal of the discourse around PTSD focuses on veterans, the prevalence of PTSD in returning soldiers has generated a great deal of research on the topic that will ultimately be valuable in the study and treatment of PTSD and trauma in all populations.
More Recent Findings on PTSD
- MIT study explores PTSD “vaccine.” Researchers at MIT have determined that the hormone ghrelin, which is known for stimulating hunger, also plays the part of a stress hormone. The researchers found that rats given a ghrelin-stimulating drug were more likely to develop fear memories, but by blocking ghrelin receptors, fear was reduced. In a clinical trial, the team at MIT, along with Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders, has been working with veterans to explore the possibility of a PTSD “vaccine” based around this concept.
- Erasing Fear Memories. In a similar study at Dallas VA Medical Center, researchers are exploring a glucocorticoid therapy that may have the potential to eliminate the fear response to traumatic memories. Researchers caution that they have a long way to go, but that so far, pilot studies have been promising.
- Treatment of depression and PTSD are closely linked. In a study at Case Western University, researchers found that rapid declines in depression correlate with better response to PTSD treatment. The study, which was published online in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, also found that the support (or lack thereof) that patients received had a significant influence on whether treatment was successful.
- Drinking and PTSD is a vicious cycle for some college students. A study from University at Buffalo, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, found that students with PTSD are more likely to abuse alcohol in college. Moreover, the alcohol abuse can actually worsen PTSD symptoms, especially because it puts students at risk for even more trauma, such as sexual assault, violence, or serious injury. The researchers wrote that “interventions that offer support and resources to students entering college with PTSD may help to ameliorate problem substance use, and may ultimately facilitate a stronger transition into college and beyond.”