How common is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder
A reliable picture of the prevalence of PTSD is provided by the US National Comorbidity Survey (NCS), which found that roughly 50% of people experience at least one trauma in their lifetime, with 7.8% of the total sample developing PTSD. The figure is not dramatically different for young people. Of the 10,000 13- to 18-year-olds interviewed for the US National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement, 5% reported having experienced PTSD, with 1.5% severely affected.
Many types of trauma can trigger PTSD, but some are more potent than others. According to the NCS, the traumas most likely to result in PTSD in women were rape, sexual molestation, physical attack, being threatened with a weapon, and childhood physical abuse; and in men, rape, combat exposure, childhood neglect, and childhood physical abuse.
Women in the NCS were twice as likely to develop PTSD as men, even though they experienced fewer traumas. This is only partly explained by the fact that women are more likely to experience the kinds of trauma that commonly produce PTSD (rape, for example). Exposed to the same type of trauma, women are more likely than men to develop PTSD — for reasons that are currently unknown.
Research on PTSD in the developing world is scarce. But a team led by Joop de Jong investigated rates of the problem in four of the world’s poorest, most conflict-ridden countries: Algeria, where appalling violence erupted after elections were cancelled in 1991; Cambodia, which endured civil war in the 1960s and then the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge; Ethiopia, also wracked by civil war; and Gaza, site of recurrent conflict since Israeli occupation in 1967. One would expect rates of PTSD in these troubled countries to be higher than in the West, and so it proved: 37.4% in Algeria (where violence was still occurring at the time of de Jong’s research); 28.4% in Cambodia; 15.8% in Ethiopia; and 17.8% in Gaza.
No one received a diagnosis of PTSD until 1980, when it was included in the DSM for the first time. The psychological effects of combat had been acknowledged since the First World War, when huge numbers of soldiers developed ’shell-shock’. But it took until the 1970s for PTSD to be recognized, largely through the efforts of Vietnam War veterans’ organizations — the Vietnam War having generated many thousands of cases — and those working with rape survivors. In 1990, it was estimated that more than a million US veterans had developed PTSD as a result of their experiences in Vietnam, with 479,000 still battling the disorder.