Exposure to Community Violence Ups Risk for PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder gets its name because it occurs in the aftermath of direct or indirect exposure to situations that pose an immediate threat to health and well-being or that seem to pose an immediate threat to health and well-being. In addition to combat exposure, such situations typically include physical assault, sexual assault, exposure to a natural disaster, involvement in a major accident, exposure to acts of terrorism and childhood exposure to physical or sexual abuse. Symptoms of PTSD fall into four broad categories: unwanted reliving of traumatic experiences while awake and/or while sleeping, development of largely negative or “down” thoughts and emotions, an urge to avoid reminders of traumatic experiences and an unusually hyper-alert or hyper-vigilant mental state resulting from repeated reactivation of the body’s built-in “fight-or-flight” response.
A post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis is made at least 30 days after exposure to a highly traumatic situation; dysfunctional trauma reactions that appear prior to 30 days indicate the presence of a shorter-term condition called acute stress disorder or ASD. Only a minority of men and women will develop PTSD or ASD in the aftermath of trauma exposure. Women’s risks for the onset of PTSD after experiencing trauma are more than twice as high as men’s risks.
Acts that broadly qualify as community violence range from threatening and bullying to physical assaults, sexual assaults, physical or sexual assaults involving the use of weapons and random or indiscriminate shooting episodes often referred to as “drive-bys.” Some communities experience serious, widespread violence on a fairly regular basis, while others periodically, occasionally or rarely experience serious violence. Even when it occurs only sporadically, community violence can trigger traumatic reactions in directly affected individuals or in individuals who merely live in areas where violent acts take place. In some cases, people living in a community with high levels of recurring violence may have trauma-related health risks similar to those associated with experiencing or witnessing life in an active combat zone.
Link to PTSD Risks
In the study review presented to the Society for Social Work and Research, the New York University researchers analyzed the results of 14 previous studies that explored the connection between exposure to community violence as a young adult and the chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. All of the studies under consideration were published in the 2000s or 2010s and included data on both PTSD and community violence (or equivalent problems such as neighborhood violence or urban violence). More than half (eight) of the articles that met the criteria for inclusion in the review focused on PTSD and community violence among young men of Hispanic descent. Three of the remaining studies focused on PTSD and community violence among European-American college attendees.
After completing their analysis, the researchers concluded that, among young American adults, the odds of exposure to community violence are substantial, even in segments of the population normally considered unlikely to receive such exposure. They also concluded that there is an apparent connection between experiencing community violence as a young adult and subsequently developing symptoms that could indicate the presence of PTSD. In addition, the researchers identified several factors that can potentially contribute to the chances of developing PTSD after community violence exposure, including such things as having an inadequate social support network, feeling responsible for any violence exposure, having a history of mental illness and rapidly distancing oneself (dissociating) from the mental reality of a traumatic experience.
The study’s authors note the lack of adequately designed studies that have explored the connection between community violence and PTSD in large segments of the population, including women and African Americans. They also note the lack of adequately designed studies that have fully explored the types of community violence exposure that pose the greatest PTSD-related risks.