Many of us think Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a relatively rare psychological problem. In reality, however, PTSD can affect anyone – and, looking into the findings of a new study into the issue, the real surprise is that the number of people with it isn't higher.

Stephanie Lewis and colleagues at King's College London conducted in-depth interviews with 2064 18-year-olds. They were asked about trauma exposure, risk events, functional impairment such as social isolation, and whether they'd suffered from anxiety or depression.

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The results are not encouraging. Nearly a third – 29.1% – had been exposed to trauma, and nearly one in four (24.9%) of them went on to develop PTSD, a disorder characterised by recurrent intrusive memories and/or nightmares, avoidance of any reminders of the trauma, and persistent feelings of guilt, isolation, detachment, irritability, and/or an inability to concentrate.

Moreover, when Lewis compared rates of psychological disorder across the sub-groups, she found those who'd experienced trauma were about twice as likely to develop other psychological problems as well, and those who developed PTSD were even more prone to complications.

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Compared to individuals who'd not experienced trauma, these young PTSD sufferers were, for example, more than three times more likely to suffer a major depressive episode and six times more liable to self-harm. Yet less than a third had seen a mental health professional in the last year.

These are sobering findings, and there's no doubt about the pressing need to improve access to psychological services. However, you might feel one of the most startling findings is the high number of young people who say they've experienced trauma.

Those who'd experienced trauma were about twice as likely to develop other psychological problems as well. Photo / 123RF
Those who'd experienced trauma were about twice as likely to develop other psychological problems as well. Photo / 123RF

To understand why, we need to look carefully at the definition used.

According to this study's careful criteria (taken directly from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders diagnostic tool), trauma is defined as "exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence; either directly, as a witness, or by learning it happened to a loved one or friend".

Given the vast amount of (often unregulated, disturbing) information young people can now access digitally, this figure makes sense – indeed, it makes you wonder if it's high enough.

If, therefore, you or a loved one experience trauma at some point, what can you do to avoid additional problems and prevent escalating distress?

Always try to create an atmosphere of acceptance and trust when you're together. When the distressed person wants to talk, put aside your other activities and listen fully, non-judgmentally, and as calmly as you can.

Encourage them gently, but try not to probe. If you are the sufferer, seek someone you can trust who will listen in that same way.

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If you or the person you're concerned about shows symptoms of PTSD seek professional help, starting with your GP.

Both trauma and PTSD can be successfully treated using trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), or a promising new approach, 3MDR, which combines key elements of EMDR with asking sufferers to watch self-chosen images of their trauma projected on a screen while they walk on a treadmill.

OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:

LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland (available 24/7)
• SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 ,free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nzor online chat.
NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
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• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
SAMARITANS – 0800 726 666.