Risk of PTSD Is Higher in Those With History of Family Problems


SAN DIEGO – A high proportion of America's youth experience or witness a violent event, and a family history of substance abuse or mental health problems increase the risk that these youth will develop posttraumatic stress disorder or depression.

Those are the findings of a 7- to 8-year follow-up of subjects in the National Survey of Adolescents, Rochelle F. Hanson, Ph.D., said at a conference sponsored by the Chadwick Center for Children and Families at Children's Hospital and Health Center, San Diego.

The follow-up found that both experiencing/witnessing violence and a family history of substance abuse, mental health problems, or depression could put an adolescent at risk of PTSD or depression. They carry a risk individually, but in combination are worse. And clinicians who care for a victim should be aware of this, said Dr. Hanson, the director of clinical operations at the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston.

“It is important to assess family environment because it does seem to be associated with risk for later mental health problems,” she said.

The follow-up reinterviewed 1,753 of the survey's initial 4,023 subjects, who were interviewed first when they were adolescents. Most of the subjects grew up in a central city area, and exposure to violence was fairly common. The violence defined in the survey had to be significant–more than a fistfight and a bloody nose, Dr. Hanson said.

In the follow-up interview, 8% reported having experienced a sexual assault, 20% reported having experienced a physical assault, and 35% had witnessed violence. In the initial survey, 37% of the respondents reported having witnessed violence.

An analysis of the responses from the second survey found that if individuals experienced or saw a physical assault, their risk of developing posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms was more than two times higher if they also had family alcohol/drug or mental health problems.

The risk was almost five times higher in those who experienced a rape if they also had a family history of alcohol/drug or mental health problems.

The findings for depression were similar.

The survey found that 25% of individuals who experienced a sexual assault had PTSD symptoms and about 15% who experienced a physical assault had PTSD.

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