Health and Healthcare

1 in 13 young British people have PTSD. Here’s why

Japanese boys play soccer on a beach near central Tokyo May 5. Recent surveys of Japan's youth said that soccer has overtaken long-time favourite baseball as the most popular sport for the nation's schoolchildren. Soccer was expected to gain even more in the sports popularity rankings as Japan co-hosts the soccer World Cup Finals in 2002.KM/DL - RP2DRHXPGGAE

An alarmingly high figure. Image: REUTERS/Kimimasa Mayama

Sean Fleming
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Shell shock. Combat stress. Battle fatigue. Soldier's heart. These are just some of the former names for the condition we now refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those names all have something in common – they make a direct connection between armed conflict and high levels of stress.

It’s small wonder then that PTSD is often thought of as something that only affects armed services personnel. But that is an unfortunate misconception that may be keeping some PTSD sufferers from the support that could help them recover.

Research published in Lancet Psychiatry highlights just how inaccurate this assumed military connection is. It finds that one in 13 children and young people in the UK will suffer from PTSD at some point. That’s roughly equivalent to conclusions drawn by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, which says as many as 6% of boys and 15% of girls who have experienced trauma will go on to suffer from PTSD.

Signs of PTSD include:

  • Feeling distracted, irritable or acting impulsively
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Plagued by memories of distressing and traumatic events
  • Ruminating and reliving the event or suffering from nightmares
  • Feelings of guilt or a sense of detachment
  • Deliberately avoiding situations that might trigger reminders

The ripple effect

Percentages like those are all very well but you may be wondering just how common PTSD is and how someone ends up as a sufferer?

According to the American Psychiatric Association: “PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.”

In the scheme of things, events like terrorist attacks are relatively rare, whereas experiencing a physical or sexual assault or witnessing a serious accident are more prevalent. And that word “witnessing” has broad connotations. A 2007 academic report in the UK looked for evidence of PTSD in a control group of children in London who had seen footage of the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. It found that as many as 14.5% of children reported symptoms of PTSD – intrusive thoughts, fear for their safety and a preoccupation with the images they’d seen were all present 3,500 miles away from the scene of the attack.

The reason why one in 13 young Brits suffer from PTSD would seem to be that it is a far more common condition than may have been thought and the ways in which traumatic events can affect people are now far more prevalent. There are also reports of moderators working for social media companies such as Facebook, exhibiting signs of PTSD as a result of the distressing content they have to watch as part of their job.

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Long-term fallout

If experiencing a traumatic event carries a risk of developing PTSD, people who suffer from PTSD are also at risk of further complications. The Lancet report found that participants with lifetime PTSD had much higher rates of mental health problems:

  • 54·7% were likely to suffer a major depressive episode
  • 27% were at risk of conduct disorders
  • 25·6% were at risk of alcohol dependence
  • 20·1% were at risk of suicide attempts
  • 11·9% were at risk of a violent offence
Image: Our World in Data

Yet despite this, the report found only 20·6% of participants with PTSD received help from mental health professionals.

Although PTSD represents some of the more severe manifestations of mental health problems, it is part of a much bigger picture – around 450 million people suffer from mental health conditions and neurological disorders.

At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting at Davos this year, Prince William talked about the importance of breaking down mental health stigmas and getting people to discuss their problems openly. And according to John Flint, the CEO of HSBC, who also spoke at Davos, this is now a question of performance: “This will be the most critical enabler of our business strategy. The suggestion that this is in some way in competition with the hard-edged, competitive, testosterone-driven nature of banking, I don’t agree with at all.”

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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