Written by Alexis Mitchell UNCC’18
College students are experiencing trauma and as a result are enduring negative psychological effects. In fact, certain events are causing college students to experience even greater symptoms of psychopathology (Vrana & Lauterbach, 1994). See College Students and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms for a previous blog post about the prevalence of posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSD) in a sample of college students.
Vrana and Lauterbach studied a large sample of 440 undergraduate college students, ages 17-49, with the average age being about 19 (1994). These researchers sought to obtain prevalence of certain traumatic events by asking the participants to choose from the eleven traumatic events offered in the DSM-III (Brett, Spizter, & Williams, 1988). In addition, they added categories of “other event,” “no traumatic event,” and “can’t tell” in order to offer students more options in case students might not want to specifically report their traumatic event, due to shame or embarrassment. Traumatized and nontraumatized subjects were compared on PTSD symptoms, symptoms of depression, symptoms of anxiety, and alcohol use. Gender differences and the effect of experiencing multiple events was also assessed.
Strikingly, 84% of the 440 college students in this study experienced at least one traumatic event. Males were more likely than females to be in an accident or a life-threatening situation, be in a fire, witness a death, or to be in combat. Females were more likely than males to have been raped or to have been in an abusive relationship as an adult. In addition, females’ anxiety scores were more strongly related to the number of traumatic experiences they had.
It is important to note that the nontrauamtized group and traumatized group did not differ significantly regarding demographics or alcohol use; however males generally reported more alcohol use than females. The traumatized group reported greater symptoms of psychological distress- they were significantly more depressed, more anxious, and higher in general PTSD symptomology. Higher levels of depressive symptoms were related to specific traumatic events: “can’t tell,” rape, being a crime victim, and the unexpected death of a significant other. Notably, the event “can’t tell” was related to higher levels of anxiety. In contrast, subjects who reported natural disasters, fires, witnessing a death, involved in a crime, and life threat reported the least intense posttraumatic stress symptoms.
In sum, this study found a high prevalence of traumatic experiences and multiple traumatic events in these college students. In fact, it was rare for subjects to have not experienced a traumatic event, and it was common for a subject to report four or more separate traumas. Most important to note is that child abuse, rape, and the unexpected death or a loved one were the most reported traumatic events in this sample. Given this information, it is important to highlight these findings because they are relevant to clinical, academic, and research environments involving college students. Counseling services that are offered on campuses and those who interact with college students should be aware of these common traumatic events. Future research should include samples of young adults that are not in college in order to provide a more diverse sample in assessing posttraumatic stress symptoms and psychopathology associated with traumatic events.
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Brett, E. A., Spitzer, R. L., & Williams, J. B. (1988). DSM-III-R criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 145(10), 1232-1236.
Vrana, S., & Lauterbach, D. (1994). Prevalence of traumatic events and post-traumatic psychological symptoms in a nonclinical sample of college students. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 7(2), 289-302.
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