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New data point to extent of trauma at Virginia Tech: more than 15% of students had PTSD.

ATLANTA--Research is starting to demonstrate the extent to which the differential loss and trauma experienced by students and staff at Virginia Tech on the morning of a shooting rampage more than 2 years ago relates to risk for posttraumatic stress disorder and development of mental illness in general.

Russell Jones, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Virginia Tech, presented findings of two follow-up surveys of nearly 5,000 students and 1,700 faculty and staff conducted in the wake of the shootings by students Seung Hui Cho. In two separate incidents on April 16, 2007, Mr. Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on the school campus in Blacksburg, Va.

Students, faculty, and staff members were surveyed a few months later, in July and August of 2007, to estimate the extent of exposure and psychological reactions. In those surveys, respondents indicated their initial awareness and proximity to the shooting incidents at Ambler Johnson Hall and/or Norris Hall on that day. A total of 77% of students said they were aware of the first incident, and 98% were aware of the second while events were unfolding.

Previous studies indicate that adverse mental health effects on emotional outcomes are substantial and related to extent of exposure, Dr. Jones said. In the current study, a little more than 15% of students met criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he said at the annual meeting of the International Society for Trauma Stress Studies.

Fourteen percent had mild or moderate mental illness, and an additional nearly 5% experienced serious mental illness.

After controlling for age, sex, and race / ethnicity, Dr. Jones found that those who were close to the site of the first shooting at Ambler Johnson Hall at 7:15 a.m., that day, had an elevated risk of PTSD (odds ratio, 1.7). The risk jumped if the respondent was injured or exposed to the dead or injured (OR, 3.9).

Similarly, those who experienced direct trauma to themselves or others associated with the Norris Hall shootings at about 9:30 a.m. had an elevated risk for developing PTSD symptoms (OR, 3.2). Risks also were higher for some indirect exposure--for example, if someone responded that they should have or could have been in Norris Hall at the time (OR, 1.5), Dr. Jones said.

In addition, for those who were unable to contact a friend that day, the risk for development of PTSD symptoms also was increased (OR, 2.5). "Not knowing where your friend is during a traumatic event can be quite traumatizing," Dr. Jones said.

The risk for PTSD symptoms was high if the respondent knew someone who was killed that day (OR, 3.6) or was close to someone who was injured (OR, 2.6).

There was also a vulnerability or predisposition factor, Dr. Jones said. "The data indicate those who experienced psychological distress before the shootings were at greater risk for distress after." A greater reliance on parents is one reason the millennial generation--those born after 1982--are so vulnerable, he said.

About 10% of respondents received some type of therapy or professional counseling related to the shootings, including 16% who consulted a primary care physician, Dr. Jones said. Most respondents reported fewer than 10 sessions, he added. Of those in counseling after the shooting, 28% already were in counseling beforehand.

A greater percentage, 28%, reported a need for mental health services, Dr. Jones said. The leading reasons this group did not receive such services included embarrassment or concern about other people knowing they needed help (cited by 31%) and being unsure where to go for counseling (25%).

"At Virginia Tech, we are addressing gaps between available counseling and the actual needs of students," Dr. Jones said. More trauma professionals with training in evidence-based interventions are needed, he said. Future training programs should reflect the cultural diversity of Virginia Tech students, he added.

"What we are hoping for is to find something we found with Hurricane Katrina--the whole notion of posttraumatic growth," Dr. Jones said. People affected by the hurricane "told us they had elevated levels of PTSD and depression. But many told us they had greater faith in God, were closer to their families, and felt they could do more in terms of rebuilding."
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Author:McNamara, Damian
Publication:Clinical Psychiatry News
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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