If you have been keeping up with the news, you have probably heard about the miraculous Thailand cave rescue that happened this past July. When twelve boys and their football coach explored a cave underneath a mountain in Thailand, they had no idea that they would end up trapped there for two weeks with almost no chance of being found alive.
Even when they were discovered, rising flood water, low air levels, and limited resources gave Thai Navy Seals leader Rear Adm Arpakorn Yuukongkaew “little hope” that the boys would still be alive when he started the rescue mission. Although the boys and their coach have been out of the cave for more than a week, their work toward recovery is just beginning. These boys are at a high risk of struggling with mental health disorders, like post-traumatic stress disorder, as a result of this traumatic event and rescue.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that some people are diagnosed with after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. Common symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, and physiological reactions to anything that triggers memories of the traumatic event. If left untreated, PTSD can lead to depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts or actions.
While the boys involved in the Thailand cave rescue will receive mental health attention for any possible PTSD symptoms, many people in the United States overlook potential symptoms of PTSD that they encounter in their daily lives. About 8% of the American population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. While it is difficult to predict who will develop PTSD, there are many risk factors that can indicate someone is more likely to produce PTSD symptoms. If you have experienced any of the following, it is important that you are aware that you are at an increased risk of developing PTSD:
The way that people are treated or the way they view their trauma can have a significant impact on their trauma symptoms. Conflicts are viewed differently in terms of their justification and brutality. This can cause veterans to be treated differently when they return and even without direct comments, can cause veterans to view the experience differently.
This effects of these factors was recently validated. A 2017 study looked at the effect of trauma-related guilt and trauma-related shaming on US veterans after combat. They found that these two factors accounted for 46% of the variance in the factors contributing to the development of PTSD. In other words, these two factors were very significant in predicting whether someone would develop PTSD after experiencing a trauma. The trauma-related shame aspect was significantly more important than the trauma-related guilt.
Childhood Abuse or Neglect
Childhood abuse and neglect significantly increases a person’s chance of experiencing PTSD. Physical, emotional, and medical neglect are all types of trauma that predispose victims to PTSD. When a child’s caretaker cannot or refuses to provide their basic needs, children are negatively impacted. An estimated 15% of girls and 6% of boys who have experienced childhood trauma have PTSD. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like physical and sexual abuse or neglect are major indicators that psychologists use to try and predict a person’s likelihood of developing PTSD or other mental health disorders.
In 2014 a study was completed looking at the relationship between childhood trauma and adult PTSD through intimate partner violence. They found that the childhood trauma did affect participants emotional function, and this then predicted greater levels of PTSD. They also found that the childhood trauma made interpersonal violence more likely. This suggested a dual pathway for the impact of childhood trauma on later PTSD symptoms, through impaired emotional functioning and by making interpersonal violence more likely.
People who have experienced trauma over a long period of time are at risk of suffering from what some psychologists call Complex PTSD. Chronic trauma like long-term physical or sexual abuse, long-term domestic violence, or long-term childhood exploitation can lead to dissociation, suicidal thoughts and actions, and other symptoms in addition to those of PTSD. People who have survived chronic trauma have a greater chance of developing PTSD or even Complex PTSD.
People who have experienced or witnessed severe traumatic events are at a greater risk of suffering from PTSD. Examples of severe trauma include violent physical or sexual assaults, kidnapping, natural disasters, and catastrophic events. People who experience rape have a 49% risk, witnesses to shootings and stabbings have a 15% risk, and those who have lived through a natural disaster have a 3% risk of developing PTSD as a result of the event.
History of Mental Illness
If you or members of your family have a history of mental illness or mental health concerns, you have a greater likelihood of producing PTSD symptoms. Approximately 50% of all outpatient mental health patients have PTSD, and that number is projected to increase. It is important that you know your family’s history of mental illness as it influences your probability of developing PTSD.
Situations that Increase Your Risk of Harm
Working in environments where your safety is in jeopardy increases your chance of developing symptoms of PTSD. Such jobs include EMTs and other first responders, police officers, or military personnel. 20% of soldiers deployed in the past six years and an estimated 18% of police officers have PTSD. These careers have the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.
History of Alcohol, Drug, or Substance Abuse
Substance abuse and PTSD are closely related. More than 50% of people with PTSD struggle with addiction and vice versa. Sometimes drugs and alcohol are used to cope with symptoms that could indicate a person has PTSD, like depression or anxiety. Abusing drugs, alcohol, and other substances can also drastically increase the severity of PTSD symptoms.
Poor Emotional Support
People with a limited or non-existent emotional support system are more likely to struggle with PTSD when they experience traumatic events. If you have few friends or family members to talk to or lean on in times of crisis, you are at a greater risk for developing PTSD.
Dr. Syras Derksen
Cunningham et. al. (2017). A relative weights comparison of trauma-related shame and guilt as predictors of DSM-5 posttraumatic stress disorder symptom severity among US veterans and military members. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 57, 163-176.
Lilly, M. M., London, M. J., & Bridgett, D. J. (2014). Using SEM to examine emotion regulation and revictimization in predicting PTSD symptoms among childhood abuse survivors. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6(6), 644-651.