Past Assault Heightens Soldiers' PTSD Risk
> 5/14/2008 12:19:37 PM

The pressing mental health needs of soldiers and veterans have become all too clear since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, with the most recent reports estimating that 300,000 current military personnel suffer from mental illness. Treatment is vital for these individuals, but researchers must also continue investigating the war-related factors that may increase an individual's chances of experiencing mental distress or exacerbate existing problems. In a new study from the journal Epidemiology, researchers from the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego report that individuals with a history of assault are roughly twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following combat.

The relationship between victimization and PTSD has been studied in the past, and while many studies have shown that prior assault can leave an individual more susceptible to developing PTSD after subsequent events, others have stressed the point that not everyone who experiences trauma goes on to display symptoms of PTSD. These studies have suggested that stressful experiences may help some individuals adopt effective ways of coping with stress and increase their resilience to future trauma. To examine how previous traumas affected soldiers' risk of PTSD, the researchers analyzed data on 5,324 soldiers, 881 of whom were women. All participants had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and had fought in a combat situation, and none had symptoms of PTSD at the study's onset.

Women participating in the study were much more likely than men to have been violently or sexually assaulted in the past, with 28 percent reporting this kind of trauma. While 13 percent of women overall developed PTSD, the rate among women with a history of assault was higher, reaching 22 percent. Similar results were seen among men. Nine percent of all men had been violently or sexually assaulted, and while seven percent of the male subjects went on to develop PTSD, this rate rose to 12 percent among men who had been assaulted. After adjusting for age, education level, substance abuse, and other factors that could have affected the results, the researchers found that men who had been victims of assault had double the risk of developing PTSD, while women with a history of assault were 2.3 times more likely to experience PTSD.

Other factors may play a substantial role in increasing a person's chances of struggling with PTSD, including the severity of the experience, personality, coping style, and the presence of other mental health problems. Additionally, a person's response to a first traumatic experience may be an important indicator of their response to future traumas, as another recent study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, indicates. By analyzing a sample of 1,200  adults, researchers from Michigan State University found that only those who had developed PTSD after a first trauma had an increased risk of developing PTSD again following a second trauma.

Researchers should continue studying the relationship between past trauma and the risk of developing subsequent PTSD, and with a better grasp of the characteristics that place an individual at risk, we may be better prepared to help those in need seek appropriate treatment. While this study indicates that soldiers with a history of assault may be more vulnerable to PTSD, it also provides further evidence of the need for improved mental health care for men and women serving in the military. As so many soldiers and veterans continue to struggle with mental illness, the importance of helping them improve their health and their lives should be clear.

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