Children at risk for PTSD following automobile accidents

A recent study published in the British Medical Journal found that one in three children involved in automobile accidents suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as evidenced by symptoms of sleep disturbance and nightmares, intrusive thoughts, difficulty talking to parents and friends, mood disturbances, separation anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and deterioration in academic performance.

The researchers studied 119 children aged 5-18 involved in automobile accidents and 66 children who sustained sports-related injuries. They found that 34.5% of the auto accident group developed PTSD within six weeks of the accident but that only 3% of the sports injury group did so. PTSD was experienced by children of all ages, although girls were more likely to be affected. Neither the severity of the automobile accident nor the severity of the physical injuries sustained in the accident were related to the development of the disorder or the degree of psychological distress experienced by the children. What did emerge as an important causative factor was the degree to which the child perceived the accident as life-threatening. A final and particularly distressing finding in the study was that none of the children experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder had received any professional help at the time of their involvement in the project.

It is important to remember that PTSD refers only to a specifically defined set of symptoms and does not encompass other important, although less severe, trauma reactions or other disorders associated with traumatic events, particularly anxiety and depressive disorders. Thus the results of this study are limited but nevertheless show that significant psychological distress about 6 weeks after everyday traffic accidents is relatively common and generally untreated.

Based on this study, and using very conservative criteria, it is reasonable to consider that at least 15% of all children involved in automobile accidents each year would suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder within 6 weeks following the event. Furthermore, these symptoms are also sufficiently severe enough to interfere with the child’s everyday functioning and it is likely that the psychological needs of most of these children remain largely untreated by the medical community.

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