Written By Alexis Mitchell UNCC’18
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect overall health and mental and social functioning for adolescents (Giaconia et al., 1995). As children age there is more opportunity for exposure to trauma and thus increasing likelihood of temporary or lasting damage to mental and social functioning. A national study asked 4,023 adolescents about experiencing or witnessing trauma. Results suggested 8% experienced sexual assault, 22% experienced physical assault, and 39% witnessed violence (Kilpatrick et al., 2000). These statistics represent the importance of studying the effects of PTSD and trauma-exposure for adolescents.
Giaconia and her colleagues conducted a longitudinal study designed to provide epidemiological information about exposure to traumas and PTSD in a community population of older adolescents (1995). In addition to estimating the prevalence of traumatic events and PTSD overall and by gender, they also examined the relationship between the experiences of traumas /lifetime diagnosis of PTSD and current emotional, behavioral, social, and academic functioning at age 18 (Giaconia et al., 1995). Data was collected in waves from the 284 adolescent participants, beginning in 1977, at ages 5, 9, 15, and 18 (data collection ended in 1990).
The current behavioral, emotional, academic, and social functioning at 18 years old was assessed through self-report measures and school records. Concerning prevalence, more than 40% of adolescents in this primarily white, working class community sample experienced traumas by age 18. 6.3% of the total sample met a lifetime diagnosis of PTSD, whereas 14.5 % of the remaining sample experienced trauma without meeting criterion for diagnosis of PTSD.
In this study, adolescents with a lifetime diagnosis of PTSD demonstrated substantial and widespread impairment in almost every expanse of functioning at age 18. PTSD diagnosed adolescents were 4 times as likely to be clinically identified with internalizing problems (being withdrawn, anxious-depressed) and 12 times as likely to reach clinical levels of externalizing problems (being aggressive, delinquency). In addition, the adolescents diagnosed with PTSD reported significantly more problems in interpersonal relationships, greater risks for suicidal thoughts, reported significantly lower ratings of perceived health, greater number of sick days, and had lower high school grade point averages than youth who had not experienced any trauma.
In addition to the PTSD diagnosed youth, the youth who had experienced trauma but did not meet all criterion for PTSD diagnosis, were also reported as having a higher risk for poor academic performance, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and poorer health. Notably, youth with PTSD were seven times as likely as the no-trauma youths and four times as likely as trauma-only (not diagnosed) youths to meet criteria for at least one of five other mental disorders. Especially striking, more than 40% of adolescents with PTSD specifically met the criteria for major depression. The association between PTSD and serious substance dependence was also noteworthy- with almost half of PTSD youths having alcohol dependence and two thirds having drug dependence.
This research is important because it highlights the potential damaging effects of PTSD to development and overall functioning of adolescents. The participants in this study who were diagnosed with PTSD displayed behavior problems, performed poorly academically, reported alarming suicidal ideation and attempts, and had increasingly more interpersonal problems and more somatic complaints.
It is important for research of this nature to continue and expand because not all victims of trauma are seen and diagnosed by medical personnel. It is not simply the diagnosis of PTSD that is important- the treatment that is implemented should include therapy to help individuals cope and adjust their lives in a positive way, as to avoid the issues highlighted in this study.
Giaconi et al., (1995). Traumas and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in a Community Population of Older Adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 34(10), 1369-1380.
Kilpatrick, D., et al. (2000). Risk factors for adolescent substance abuse and dependence: Data from a national sample. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 19-30.