Risky Behavior and PTSD Go Hand in Hand

PTSD veterans more likely to engage in aggressive driving and unprotected sex

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Veterans returning from war face many challenges reintegrating into civilian life. Those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often find it particularly difficult, and react in many different ways that may include engaging in risky behavior.

A study published in the April issue of Military Medicine examined the link between self-reported PTSD and risk-taking behaviors among veterans.

The study found that PTSD symptoms were associated with higher than average rates of substance use, thrill seeking, aggression, risky sexual behavior and possession of firearms.

"Speak to a therapist if you are experiencing PTSD symptoms."

Thad Q. Strom, PhD, of the University of Minnesota Medical School Department of Psychiatry, and colleagues evaluated 395 veterans receiving outpatient mental health care and primary medical care at a large Midwestern Veterans Affairs medical center.

The study participants were chosen to reflect the veteran population currently being served by Veterans Affairs, a government-run military veteran benefit system that provides patient care and federal benefits to veterans and their dependents.

The participants were 94.5 percent male, 87.2 percent Caucasian, 53.7 percent married or in a committed relationship and 56.9 percent retired. About 77 percent were recruited for the study from a mental health setting and 22.8 percent came from a primary care setting.

Ages ranged from 18 to 89 years with a mean age of 52.6.

Most of the participants were from the Vietnam era (39.7 percent), followed by the Post-Vietnam era (21.3 percent), Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) in Iraq and Afghanistan (14.3 percent) and prior to Vietnam (12.9 percent)

Participants were asked to complete a supervised, 15-minute anonymous questionnaire assessing their current symptoms and lifestyle choices. The questionnaire included three items to check for possible traumatic brain injury (TBI), a 17 question military version PTSD checklist, a 42 question risk-taking scale, ten questions on alcohol use and five questions regarding weapon ownership.

As the researchers expected, PTSD symptoms were significantly associated with high levels of overall frequency of risk-taking behaviors, alcohol use, and firearm possession. Of the risky behaviors, thinking about suicide, aggressive driving, and risky sexual behavior such as engaging in unprotected sex were among the most frequently reported.

Aggression while driving was particularly significant amongst OEF/IEF veterans. OEF/IEF veterans were 72 percent more likely to yell or making hand gestures while driving.

These results are similar to those in past studies regarding PTSD. Most past studies focus on a narrower definition of risk-taking behavior that includes substance abuse and violent behavior.

This study expands on past studies by including risky sexual behavior, thrill-seeking behavior and unlawful activities such as stealing and vandalism. It also looks at OEF/OIF veterans, where past studies have mostly focused on Vietnam era veterans.

These results show that PTSD has important public health implications including higher rates of motor vehicle accidents and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. These results also underline the necessity for treatment of high-risk behaviors in veteran populations.

"Being aware of such a high risk in this population will help early intervention by therapists who treat those soldiers suffering from PTSD," says Juan Dominguez PhD, principal investigator at the Neuroendocrinology and Motivation Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas.

Dr. Dominguez also points out that the study has some limitations and that further research in this area should be done.

"This study reports a link between PTSD and risk taking behaviors, however, it did not assess risk taking behaviors before the galvanizing trauma," adds Dr. Dominguez.

No conflicts of interest were reported in the study.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 23, 2012
Last Updated:
January 31, 2013