The Facts And Fictions Of PTSD Statistics
By Nadia Khan
Updated October 22, 2019
Reviewer Chante’ Gamby, LCSW
In recent years, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has received increased attention from health professionals and the general public. Although historically associated with military personnel and people in high-risk jobs (EMTs, firefighters), it has become more commonly known that PTSD can affect anyone who experiences a traumatizing event. In this article, we will present statistics on PTSD and look more in depth at PTSD stats on combat veterans, victims of sexual abuse, and PTSD in children and teens.
But first, what is PTSD?
"PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, is a mental disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood."
-Nebraska Department of Veterans' Affairs
In the U.S, it is thought that 70% of Americans have experienced at least one traumatic event. Of these individuals, 20% (roughly 44.7 million Americans) have previously struggled, or are currently struggling, with the symptoms of PTSD. At any given time, 8% of Americans are living with PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD include:
- Intrusive memories: Upsetting dreams or reoccurring flashbacks about the event.
- Avoidance: Avoiding the memory of the event, or places and people that remind you of the event.
- Negative changes in thinking or mood: Feeling numb or sad, having low self-esteem, and feeling hopeless about the future.
- Changes in emotional reactions: Irritable, angry outbursts, feeling guilty or ashamed, and/or being easily frightened.
- Reliance on substances such as alcohol or drugs
Gender Differences in PTSD
Gender differences exist among people who develop PTSD. One study finds that men are 3 times more likely to experience a traumatizing event. However, many other studies that investigate statistics on PTSD find that women are twice as likely to develop PTSD (women: 10.4%, men: 5%). Why? The research on this is not entirely sure. Overall, women are more likely to report experiencing traumatizing sexual events while men are more likely to experience combat-related events or serious accidents. However, this does not completely explain the differences seen in the onset of PTSD. Although further research is needed, some suggest either gender differences in pre-existing mental illnesses (for example, depression) or differences in the way men and women process events, could be attributed to gender disparities in PTSD onset.
PTSD and High-Risk Careers
Many individuals have a career in which they inevitably experience more traumatic events than the general population. Below are some careers with the highest rates of PTSD:
- Military Personnel: Many soldiers develop PTSD after returning from combat. The estimates vary widely depending on the type of conflict (see below for more details), but are often estimated to be between 10% and 31%.
- Police Officers: Development of PTSD in police officers varies widely depending on the officer's daily duties if they have had to use their firearm in the line of duty, and the crime rate of the city they serve. Some studies estimate 15-18% of police officers suffer from PTSD. Rates are difficult to obtain because unfortunately many departments do not have adequate resources for officers and many officers are not aware that they have symptoms.
- Firefighters: The prevalence of PTSD among firefighters has been estimated at 20%, possibly higher for volunteer firefighters. There is a hotline specifically for firefighters who feel like they may be suffering from PTSD or other mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety: 1-888-731-FIRE (3473).
- Emergency Medical First Responders: These first responders are often called to the scene of gruesome car accidents, homicides, and other accidents, and often witness death. Many of these individuals suffer burnout from long shifts and additional stressors. estimate that roughly 20% of EMS professionals show all or most of the symptoms of PTSD.
PTSD in Veterans Statistics
Not long ago, combat-induced PTSD was thought to be a sign of weakness in soldiers. Thankfully, the majority of higher-ups in the military and the US Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) have dispelled this myth, and are on the forefront of providing treatment for current military personnel and veterans.
According to VA PTSD statistics, the vast majority of Army and Marine soldiers who served in Iraq experienced stressors such as seeing dead bodies (95%), being shot at (93-97%), being attacked or ambushed (89-95%), receiving rocket or mortar fire (86%-92%), and/or knowing someone who was killed or seriously injured (87%). Soldiers serving in Afghanistan experienced similar traumas although to a lesser extent. Among soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA estimates that 10-18% of returning soldiers are likely to develop PTSD.
Research has collected data on veteran PTSD statistics and found that certain factors make experiencing PTSD symptoms post-service more likely. Here are factors listed on the VA website that increase the likelihood that a soldier will develop PTSD:
- Longer deployment time
- More severe combat exposure, such as:
- Deployment to "forward" areas close to the enemy
- Seeing others wounded or killed
- More severe physical injury
- Traumatic brain injury
- Lower rank
- Lower level of schooling
- Low morale and poor social support within the unit
- Not being married
- Family problems
- Member of the National Guard or Reserves
- Prior trauma exposure
- Female gender
- Hispanic ethnic group
Military PTSD statistics have also collected rates of PTSD for veterans from other wars. Between 1986 and 1988, about 31% of men and 27% of women returning from the Vietnam war were found to have symptoms of PTSD. A recently conducted study found that more than 30 years later, many Vietnam vets still experience PTSD. Of those who served in high combat zones, 17% of Vietnam vets over age 60 and 22% under age 60 still suffer from PTSD.
Speaking with a mental health professional has become an easier task, as many are available through online means. Veterans are encouraged to contact a health professional and seek help for minimizing symptoms of PTSD.
PTSD from Sexual Trauma
Men, women, and children can all experience significant trauma from sexual abuse, which can ultimately manifest in PTSD and other mental illnesses. Here are some sexual abuse and PTSD stats:
- Of the estimated 683,000 women who are raped annually, 94% experience symptoms of PTSD in the first two weeks after the rape, and 30% report symptoms 9 months afterward
- 1 out of every 10 rape victims are male
- Men who are raped are much more likely to develop PTSD compared to non-abused men
- 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are victims of some form of child sexual abuse
- Children who are sexually abused may develop PTSD immediately or years after abuse
- Children who have been abused may show behavioral problems, inappropriate sexual behavior, or depression
It is still difficult for many men to speak out about sexual abuse, as there are negative perceptions about what being abused means and says about you. Regardless of your gender or the type of abuse, seeking the health of a mental health professional can help you to seek the treatment that you need.
PTSD in Children and Teens
Although PTSD is more common in adults, it can also arise in children and teens. Some events that cause PTSD in children and teens include witnessing natural disasters, having a friend commit suicide or be killed, being a victim of physical or sexual abuse, or witnessing or surviving a car accident. Child Protective Services has found that of the 5.5 million children for which the agency receives calls about, 30% are abused. Of these, the abuse occurs from neglect (65%), physical abuse (18%), sexual abuse (10%), and mental abuse (7%). Many more children witness family violence as well. There are likely many more children for which these types of abuse are not reported.
According to some studies, up to 40% of girls and boys experience at least one trauma as a child or teen. Of these, 3-15% of girls and 1-6% of boys develop PTSD. Factors that increase the chance that the child or teen will develop PTSD include how severe the trauma is, how the parents react to the trauma, and the child/teen's physical proximity to the trauma. For example, numerous studies investigated the rates of PTSD in children after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Rates of PTSD were found to be much higher for children near ground zero (up to 35%) compared to other schoolchildren living in New York City (10-18%). Rates of PTSD were higher among children who witnessed their parents crying or watched the attacks on television.
Fortunately, there are treatment options for children and teens who experience traumatic events and develop PTSD. Mental health professionals use cognitive-behavioral-therapy (CBT) as a method for alleviated PTSD symptoms. This usually involves talking about the event and recreating memories, so they are less traumatizing for the child/teen.
PTSD and Suicide
For some, PTSD symptoms can be unbearable at times which makes the individual feel like they will never be rid of their symptoms. Regardless of pre-existing conditions, the risk of suicide is higher among those who have PTSD compared to individuals without PTSD. For combat veterans, possibly 5,000-8,000 suicides occur annually. Although higher than rates among the general public, this is not astronomically higher like once previously thought. There is evidence that more police officer deaths occur as a result of suicide than in the line of duty.
If you or a loved one is considering committing suicide, please call the suicide hotline:1-800-273-TALK (8255). To be routed to the Veterans Crisis Line, dial 1 after being connected.
Seeking Treatment for PTSD
Luckily for most survivors of traumatic incidents, PTSD is treatable. Although it is clear that many people in a variety of professions suffer from PTSD, less than half of people with PTSD seek treatment. Treatment options are becoming easier and are better at helping treat PTSD and ease symptoms. The stigma of having PTSD is decreasing for many, and it is becoming more common for those with PTSD to speak with others. Because many people with PTSD find it difficult to speak with others about their symptoms, the idea of seeking help through the Internet has helped millions of Americans get the help they need by speaking with health professionals through websites such as BetterHelp.com.