Rates of trauma and of posttraumatic stress disorder higher among incarcerated youth

04/01/04

CHICAGO Most young persons incarcerated in the juvenile justice system have experienced at least one traumatic event and have higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than young persons living in the community, according to an article in the April issue of The Archives of General Psychiatry, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

According to information in the article, each year approximately 2.4 million juveniles are arrested, accounting for 17 percent of all arrests. The number of detained juveniles with psychiatric disorders is high: two-thirds of boys and three-quarters of girls have one or more psychiatric disorders. Lifetime diagnoses of PTSD in community samples of youth range from 6.3 percent to 7.8 percent.

Karen M. Abram, Ph.D., of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, and colleagues investigated the prevalence of exposure to traumatic events and the yearly rates of PTSD among 898 African American, non-Hispanic white, and Hispanic detained juveniles (532 boys, 366 girls, aged 10-18 years) in Cook County, Illinois (including Chicago and surrounding suburbs).

The researchers found that most of the juveniles (92.5 percent) had experienced one or more traumatic events (average, 14.6 incidents). Significantly more boys (93.2 percent) than girls (84.0 percent) reported at least one traumatic experience. Among both boys and girls, the three most frequently reported traumas were having "seen or heard someone get hurt very badly or be killed" (reported by 74.9 percent of boys and 63.5 percent of girls), having been "threatened with a weapon" (reported by 59.3 percent of boys and 47.3 percent of girls) and being in a situation where "you thought you or someone close to you was going to be hurt very badly or die" (reported by 53.5 percent of boys and 49.1 percent of girls).

The researchers also found that 11.2 percent of the participants met criteria for PTSD in the past year, and more than half of the juveniles with PTSD reported witnessing violence as the trauma responsible for causing their PTSD.

The researchers conclude that the mental health system must improve services for young victims of trauma, improve the detection of PTSD, and avoid retraumatizing incarcerated juveniles. "Our nation's delinquent children are among the most traumatized," the authors write. "We must balance the resources used to punish with resources needed to heal the traumas endured by vulnerable youth."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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