The good news: post-traumatic stress disorder in children isn’t as high as it was previously thought, at least not in Australia, the UK and USA.
The bad news: the rate of PTSD is still relatively high, and more often than not goes untreated, leaving very young people prone to sleeplessness governed by flashbacks, social withdrawal due to anxiety and inability to function at school. It also presents in girls more than boys.
More than one in three children were thought to have suffered PTSD after witnessing or experiencing a terrifying event, such as cyclone, catastrophic car accident or assault. This was based on less rigorous research involving questionnaires and self-reporting.
A new study, published last week by the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that one in six, or 16 per cent, of children develop PTSD after being exposed to a traumatic event. Dr Eva Alisic, from the Monash Injury Research Institute, established this figure after examining 72 peer-reviewed articles in which the experiences of 3,500 children aged between two and 18 years old had been documented and analysed.
We looked at all the research that used the best diagnostic measures, and found that the 36 per cent figure often used in our field was wrong. It turned out to be one in six, which is high and too often not identified,” says Dr Alisic. “The question we’re looking at now is how can emergency staff (in hospitals) support children after a serious injury.”
There was considerable variation in the rate, depending on the type of trauma the child suffered. One in 10 children who had experienced a natural disaster, death of a parent, life-threatening disease or an injury due to an accident were found to have developed PTSD. The higher rate was found among children who had suffered through trauma inflicted by another person. Dr Alisic says it was thought that inter-personal trauma leads to higher rates of PTSD because it may involve a betrayal of trust, it shatters a child’s assumptions about the world, or it leads to more self-blame.
This article first appeared on ‘Brisbane Times’ on 3 May 2014.