Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by definition is a mental disorder as a result of experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. While PTSD is often associated with military personnel and the trauma of combat, it can also be diagnosed in people who have been victims of or even threatened with violent crime, including rape, or have survived a natural disaster, such as a tornado or earthquake, or other traumatic event like an act of terrorism or motor vehicle accident.
The Numbers: Who is Affected?
Data shows that PTSD affects approximately 3.5% of the population in the United States each year, and 11% of the population will at some point in their lives be diagnosed with the disorder. And while PTSD can affect both women and men, women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with PTSD. Additionally, Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans have much higher rates of PTSD than non-Latino Whites. Once thought of as a combat disorder, PTSD is now much more deeply understood in the psychiatric community and affects both civilians and military personnel.
PTSD: Typical Characteristics
While symptoms of PTSD can vary depending on specific events, some common characteristics are widely reported. To start, there must be exposure to a traumatic event, which can be first hand or indirect. For example, if a child learns that his parent has been killed in an auto accident, he may develop a trauma response to being in a vehicle himself and experience long term negative reactions such as panic attacks when riding in a car or being unable or unwilling to get into a car at all.
Following a trauma, a person may experience any of the following reactions at any time or while thinking about or being in situations that remind them of the trauma: nightmares, anxiety, panic attacks, irrational fear of certain situations (phobias), depression, and other negative emotions. Some people block out memories of the traumatic event, which makes treatment even more challenging. Many people report having flashbacks, which can be particularly terrifying as they mentally place the person back into the feeling of experiencing the trauma again. Other symptoms include extreme sadness and anger, including violence toward themselves or others. Substance abuse is also a common secondary symptom that results when people suffering with PTSD turn to drugs or alcohol to soothe themselves.
When Is It PTSD?
While negative emotions associated with a traumatic event are extremely common, a person may be diagnosed with PTSD when the symptoms last for a month or longer, and/or interrupt a person’s normal daily life. Chronic, undiagnosed PTSD can lead to a variety of other complications, including drug, alcohol, food, or sex addiction, depression, seclusion or withdrawal from society altogether, memory impairments, health issues, and suicide.
The First Step: Getting Diagnosed
Often, a loved one or close friend may suggest to someone they suspect of showing signs of PTSD that he or she should “get help.” Other times, a person may recognize that his or her life has become unmanageable, or the symptoms, such as depression or irrational fear is no longer something they can cope with alone. In fact, in both undiagnosed and diagnosed patients with PTSD, the risk of suicide is much higher than the general population.
If you or a loved one is exhibiting symptoms of PTSD or has experienced a traumatic event and needs help coping, the first step is to call a mental health professional, whether through an employer, social services or private insurance. If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK.