How common is PTSD?

The National Post, a Canadian publication, has an interesting though frustratingly superficial article about how PTSD is more common than most of us think. Dr James Aw, who has a regular column in the paper, talks about a patient of his who suffered PTSD after being taken hostage by an armed robber.

He goes on to discuss the topic with Colonel Rakesh Jetly, chief psychiatrist for the Canadian Forces, who says that PTSD is more common among the civilian population than we realise – apparently between 6% and 9% of people who undergo a traumatic event will experience PTSD afterward. (He doesn’t define a traumatic event, however.) This is welcome: one of the problems with discussing PTSD is a general unwillingness to accept that it happens to people other than those who have returned from combat.

When it comes to treatment, rather than mentioning established methods such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) or eye movement desensitation and reprocessing (EMDR) Dr Jetly mentions a relatively new approach of using “virtual-reality computer software to place the PTSD-affected subject in an environment similar to what caused the trauma in the first place.”

It’s true that there has been some success with this method, though it’s difficult to see how it would work in every case of PTSD – giving birth being one of those situations that would be hard to simulate through virtual reality software. And, as Dr Aw points out, it’s difficult to prepare for something you don’t know is going to happen (such as being taken hostage by a bank robber).

The article concludes with Dr Jetly’s advice to seek help “early following a traumatic event” – a curious piece of advice, given that the standard advice is to wait a month after a traumatic event before seeking help for PTSD symptoms. This is because a lot of people find that symptoms disappear of their own accord within a month, while early counselling can exacerbate symptoms by making people focus on the traumatic event. (While the causes of PTSD aren’t completely understood, it seems that it’s a result of the traumatic event remaining in short-term memory without being moved safely into long-term memory, which is what happens in the normal course of events.)

What the article reveals is how little we still know of a relatively common mental health condition: what causes it, who is most at risk, how it can be prevented and how treated. Forty or so years after it was first given a name, we’ve still got a very long way to go.

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