In 2010, Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota moved to create a national day of awareness for the mental health condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was moved by the heartbreaking suicide of Staff Sergeant Joe Biel, who suffered from PTSD and took his own life after returning home from his second combat tour in Iraq. Sergeant Beal was born on June 27th, so Senator Conrad chose that day as our official PTSD Awareness Day. In 2014, the Senate went one step further, and designated the entire month of June as National PTSD Awareness Month.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health disorder that can develop after an individual experiences an extremely traumatic event. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V (DSM-V), the go-to diagnostic manual for mental health professionals, classifies PTSD as a trauma and stessor-related disorder that may appear after a traumatic event at any point in a person’s life. Originally identified in combat soldiers during World War I and World War II, PTSD was called either shell shock or combat fatigue. However, experience combat in war is not the only thing that can cause PTSD.
Other types of trauma that can lead to PTSD include exposure to, experiencing, or witnessing:
- Rape or sexual assault
- Non-sexual assault
- Serious accident or injury
- Childhood physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes
- Severe injury or death of another person
While not everyone exposed to the types of trauma listed above develop PTSD, statistics show that roughly 20% of people who experience them develop the disorder in some form or another. For people who do develop PTSD, the symptoms can be very disruptive and make day to day life extremely difficult. In some cases, PTSD can lead to the development of other behavioral disorders. If untreated, PTSD can last years – even a lifetime – and may lead to suicide attempts or other self-harming behavior.
Prevalence of PTSD
According to the Sidran Institute, close to 70% of adults in the U.S. experience a traumatic event at least once in their lifetime. Of those, 20% go on to develop PTSD. Additional data from the Sidran Institute shows:
- 5% of Americans have PTSD at any given time. That’s about 13 million people.
- 8.7% of adults develop PTSD at some point in their lives. That’s just over 20 million people.
- In any given year, around 3.6% of adults suffer the symptoms of PTSD. That’s over 9 million people.
- 11.1% of women in the U.S. will develop PTSD at some point in their lives. That’s almost 20 million women.
- Women are 50% more likely than men to develop PTSD
Data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) shows that anywhere between 15-43% of children and teens in the U.S. experience a traumatic event at some point during their childhood. Additional data from a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) 2001-2004 survey shows that of adolescents who experience trauma:
- 5% develop PTSD – about 2 million.
- 1.5% develop PTSD with severe impairment – about 630,000
- 8% of females develop PTSD – about 3.3 million
- 2.3% of males develop PTSD – just under 1 million
By specific age group, the adolescent data looks like this:
- 13-14: 3.7% develop PTSD
- 15-16: 5.1% develop PTSD
- 17-18: 7.0% develop PTSD
Reliable data and statistics show that millions of adults, adolescents, and children each year experience trauma and develop PTSD. Next, we’ll discuss the symptoms to watch for in people who are at risk of developing PTSD.
PTSD: Signs and Symptoms
Mental health professionals diagnose PTSD when symptoms persist for 30 days or more. PTSD symptoms fall into four categories: reliving the traumatic event, avoiding reminders of the event, negative changes in beliefs or feelings after the event, and hyper-arousal.
Here’s a breakdown of what the symptoms in each category look like:
- Reliving the Event. Symptoms may include:
- Nightmares, flashbacks, disturbing memories/images related to the event
- Physical responses like panic attacks, chills, or sweating.
- Racing, pounding heart when reminded of the event.
- Avoiding Reminders of the Event. Symptoms may include:
- Avoiding people, places, or objects related to the event.
- Avoiding anniversaries of the event
- Refusing to discuss the event with others
- Negative Changes After the Event. Symptoms may include:
- Isolation from family, friends, and peers
- Constant negative thoughts or feelings about oneself
- Constant negative thoughts or feelings about the world
- Feeling suspicious or paranoid
- Inability to remember the event
- Emotional distance/aloofness/numbness
- Self-medication with alcohol or drugs
- Chronic Pain
- Symptoms may include:
- Being jumpy, on edge, and easily startled
- Constantly feeling anxious, nervous, and irritable
- Outbursts of anger unrelated or disproportionate to the apparent trigger of the anger
- Problems concentrating
People with PTSD are at increased risk of developing mood disorders such as depression, which can exacerbate the initial symptoms of PTSD. People with PTSD are also at increased risk of developing an alcohol or substance use disorder.
Treatment for PTSD
The symptoms of PTSD can be intense and disruptive, but treatment for PTSD works. After receiving a diagnosis from a licensed mental health professional, a typical course of treatment for PTSD includes psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both.
The two most common modes of psychotherapy/therapy for PTSD are:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT works on helping an individual with PTSD change non-productive or irrational thought patterns and beliefs. By understanding these patterns, people with PTSD can work to modify them and alleviate their most disruptive aspects. Subtypes of CBT for PTSD include:
- Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
- Exposure Therapy
- Cognitive Restructuring
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
To learn more about CBT for adolescents, read our article The Benefits of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Teens.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
Dialectical Behaviroal Therapy is also a sub-type of CBT, but its widespread use and effectiveness for a variety of mental health disorders has elevated it to a point where it almost qualifies as a category of treatment unto itself. DBT works to help people with PTSD change unwanted patterns of thought and behavior to patterns of behavior that enrich and sustain health and wellness. DBT focuses on four primary skills:
- Distress tolerance
- Emotional regulation
- Interpersonal effectiveness
To learn more about DBT for adolescents, read our article Treatment Spotlight: Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) at Evolve.
Medications for PTSD include the following four selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs):
In some cases, psychiatrists may prescribe anti-psychotics, alpha blockers, or anxiolytics (Xanax, etc.) to manage the symptoms of PTSD. The most important thing to take away from all this information about treatment is the fact that treatment for PTSD works. Additionally, research shows that the earlier an individual receives treatment, the better the outcome. And if an individual experience an extreme trauma and receives help right away in processing the emotions related to the trauma, they may avoid developing PTSD altogether.
PTSD Awareness Month
No one goes through life without experiencing difficulty – that’s why some people with PTSD struggle with the symptoms for decades without knowing they have a mental health disorder. They don’t connect traumatic events that happened years ago – whether as a child or as an adult – with the difficulties they have in the present, much less understand that those events are responsible for a host of emotional and behavioral patterns playing out in their day-to-day lives. That makes it crucial for parents of teenagers who’ve experienced trauma to get them help as soon as possible: untreated symptoms can lead to significant problems later in life, including alcohol, substance use, and emotional/mood disorders. The right treatment at the right time – meaning as soon as possible – can decrease the likelihood of developing these additional problems and help teens who’ve experience trauma lead healthy and fulfilling lives.
If your teen has experienced trauma, you can find a qualified professional in their area with this psychiatrist finder provided by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.