Risk for PTSD: War and Peace

PTSD risk for veterans is affected by combat experiences and life before the war

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Not everyone who sees combat during a war develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Researchers wanted to know why some Vietnam veterans developed PTSD and others didn’t.

A recent study found that harming another person in combat raised the risk of developing PTSD. And personal risk factors, such as childhood abuse or childhood mental illness, raised the odds that men would still have PTSD years later.

Stressful combat, harming another person and personal risk factors added together to raise the risk for PTSD even more. As many as 97 percent of men reporting all three developed PTSD.

The authors concluded that severe combat stress raises the risk of developing PTSD, but personal risk factors influence how long PTSD persists.

"Talk to your psychiatrist about any trauma you've experienced."

Previous research has shown that childhood experiences, like abuse or having a parent in jail, can make people more vulnerable to PTSD. Other research has shown that certain combat experience, like harming another person, can also increase the risk of PTSD.

So researchers at Columbia University, led by Bruce P. Dohrenwend, PhD, wanted to know how personal risks and combat experiences were related to PTSD in war veterans.

They used data from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study. They selected 260 men from the study who had a clinical interview 11 or 12 years after they served in the Vietnam War.

The interviews asked questions about PTSD symptoms, like nightmares, flashbacks and anxiety. Some men developed PTSD but were no longer suffering from symptoms when they were interviewed. Other men were still actively experiencing PTSD symptoms.

The researchers put together personal accounts of people in the study with news and military records to determine which types of combat they experienced. Military records also provided information about childhood history, education, history of mental illness, previous war experiences and age while serving in the Vietnam War.

The researchers found that as much as 76.1 percent of veterans who reported that they harmed another person during the war developed PTSD. Also, men under 25 were almost 7 times more likely to develop PTSD than men over 25.

Personal risk factors, like childhood abuse or pre-war mental illness, raised the risk that a veteran continued to have PTSD symptoms years later.

For veterans who had combat experience, harmed another person during the war and had personal risk factors, 97 percent of them developed PTSD after the war.

The authors concluded that both combat experiences and personal risks can add together to put men at greater risk for PTSD.

They also said that developing PTSD is more influenced by the types of combat a person experiences. But personal factors influence whether or not PTSD persists for years.

This study was published in February in Clinical Psychological Science. The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Spunk Fund, Inc. The author declares no relevant conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 26, 2013
Last Updated:
March 4, 2013