The Facts And Fictions Of PTSD Statistics
By Nadia Khan
Updated May 19, 2020
Reviewer Chante’ Gamby, LCSW
Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence which could potentially be triggering.
Historically associated with military personnel and people in high-risk jobs such as EMTs and firefighters, PTSD was formerly referred to as shell shock and is typically viewed as an illness resulting from war or fighting. Over the years, we have come to understand that shell shock is in fact post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it can affect anyone who experiences a trauma, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity.
Although there is more awareness around the subject of PTSD, there are also some misconceptions and misinformation about the disorder. In this article, we'll present statistics on PTSD and take a more in-depth look at PTSD stats on combat veterans, victims of sexual abuse, and PTSD in children and teens, as well as treatment options.
But First, What Is PTSD?
"PTSD, or Post-traumatic 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 in their lifetime. Of these individuals, 20% (roughly 44.7 million Americans) have previously struggled or continue to struggle with symptoms of PTSD. At any given time, 8% of Americans are living with PTSD. Some of the symptoms include:
- Intrusive memories: Upsetting dreams or recurring flashbacks about the traumatic event
- Avoidance: Avoiding the memory of the event, or the 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: Irritability, angry outbursts, feeling guilty or ashamed, and being easily frightened
- Relying on or using substances such as alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism
Gender Differences in PTSD
Although PTSD is not gender specific, some gender differences do exist among people who develop PTSD. One study found that men are three 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, however, it may be linked to the fact that women are more likely to report experiencing traumatizing sexual events while men are more likely to experience combat-related events or serious accidents.
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 linked 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 as well depending on the officer's daily duties, whether they've had to use their firearm in the line of duty, and the crime rate of the city where they serve. Some studies estimate 15-18% of police officers suffer from PTSD. Exact rates are difficult to obtain since many departments unfortunately do not have adequate resources for officers and many are simply unaware they have symptoms.
- Firefighters: The prevalence of PTSD among firefighters has been estimated at 20%, possibly higher for volunteer firefighters. There is a hotline, 1-888-731-FIRE (3473), specifically for firefighters who feel like they may be suffering from PTSD or other mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety.
- Emergency Medical First Responders: First responders are often called to the scene of gruesome car accidents, homicides, natural disasters, and other accidents. They very often witness death and trauma. Many of these individuals suffer burnout from long shifts and additional stressors. It is estimated that roughly 20% of EMS professionals show all or most of the symptoms of PTSD.
Given today's awareness around PTSD, most of the careers listed above place high priority on mental well-being and wellness. If you are someone who is working in one of these areas, reach out to Human Resources or the Personnel Unit to find out who you can speak to. Chances are your place of employment has a team of counselors and therapists in place to help and support you, whether you just want to vent about a bad day or talk about PTSD symptoms. In fact, you are strongly encouraged to speak to a therapist on a regular basis because it allows you to express your feelings, find a release from the trauma you're seeing every day, and may help you to keep your work and personal life separate and balanced.
PTSD in Veterans
Not long ago, combat-induced PTSD was thought to be a sign of weakness in soldiers; they were viewed as not being tough or manly. 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%), 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.
Data and statistics collected on veteran PTSD found that certain factors make experiencing PTSD symptoms post-service more likely. Here are the factors listed on the VA website which increase the likelihood that a soldier will develop PTSD:
- Longer deployment time
- Severe combat exposure
- Deployment to "forward" areas close to the enemy
- Seeing others wounded or killed
- 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 or lack of support system back home
- Member of the National Guard or Reserves
- Prior exposure to trauma
- 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 a much easier task given the importance placed on mental well being and the accessibility of therapists both in person and online. Veterans are encouraged to contact a health professional and seek help in order to minimize their symptoms of PTSD. No matter how long it has been, it is never too late to get help.
PTSD from Sexual Trauma
Men, women, and children can all experience significant trauma from sexual abuse, which can ultimately result in the development of PTSD or other mental illnesses.
Some statistics are below.
- Of the estimated 683,000 women who are raped annually, 94% experience symptoms of PTSD in the first two weeks after the rape while 30% report symptoms approximately 9 months later
- 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, sometimes well into their twenties or thirties
- Children who have been abused may show behavioural problems, inappropriate sexual behaviour, depression, or develop substance and addiction problems
It is still difficult for many to speak out about sexual abuse as there are negative perceptions about what being abused means and what it says about you. Regardless of your gender or the type of abuse, seeking help and getting the treatment you need is imperative to your future well-being.
PTSD in Children and Teens
Although PTSD is more common in adults, it can also affect children and teens. Some events that cause PTSD in children and teens include:
- Witnessing natural disasters or death
- Having a friend commit suicide or be killed through violent means
- Being a victim of physical or sexual abuse
- Witnessing or surviving a car accident
On average, Child Protective Services receives calls for 5.5 million children. Of those, 30% are victims of some kind of abuse:
- Neglect (65%)
- Physical Abuse (18%)
- Sexual abuse (10%)
- Mental abuse (7%)
These numbers don't take into account all the children who are witness to family violence and abuse, nor does it account for other types of abuse which might go unreported. 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 of developing PTSD include the severity of the trauma, how the parents reacted to the trauma, the child or teen's physical proximity to the trauma, and the support they received following the trauma.
For example, numerous studies investigated the rates of PTSD in children after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which found that rates of PTSD were much higher for children near ground zero (up to 35%) compared to other schoolchildren living in New York City (10-18%). The rates of PTSD were also higher among children who witnessed their parents crying or who watched the attacks on television.
Given all of this, it cannot be stressed enough how important it is to seek treatment. Remember, early intervention and timely treatment can make a world of difference, especially when children are concerned.
Seeking Treatment for PTSD
Receiving a diagnosis of PTSD can be an extremely scary thought. You may feel anxious about what it means for you or your family, you may feel hopeless at the thought of living with it forever. The good news is, PTSD is highly treatable and with the right treatment and support you can go on to live a happy, fulfilling, and successful life. No matter how impossible it seems now, this is the truth. Studies have shown that within six weeks of starting psychotherapy treatment, 46% of people with PTSD saw improvement in their symptoms while 62% saw improvement after taking medication. Who is to say that 46% or 62% can't be you?
For children and teens who experience traumatic events and develop PTSD, mental health professionals use cognitive-behavioral-therapy (CBT) as a method for alleviating PTSD symptoms. CBT focuses on identifying and understanding what the issue is before changing the individual's thoughts patterns and reactions to the trauma.
For adults the main way of treating PTSD is also through psychotherapy, specifically:
- Cognitive Therapy - this therapy places focus on how the individual views themselves, the world around them and the people around them after they endured the trauma. How has it affected you? Shifted your perspective? It then looks at helpful ways to deal with the thoughts surrounding the trauma.
- Exposure Therapy - this therapy focuses on exposing the individual to the trauma by having them relive and recount it and confront their triggers. The goal is that repeated exposure to the trauma will take away its power and hold.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing - involves having the individual focus on the trauma while listening to or concentrating on a repetitive sound or movement.
Medication, such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety, is also used in specific cases to improve or lessen the severity of the symptoms.
How BetterHelp Can Support You
Because there is an increased awareness and understanding of PTSD, it is easier than ever to get help and treatment for the disorder. 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 may initially find it difficult to speak with others about what they're going through, the idea of seeking in person help can be daunting and a hassle. Many people instead prefer seeking help and counseling online through mental health sites such as BetterHelp. Staffed with highly specialized, licensed mental health professionals, the site is an invaluable resource for anyone who needs support for their mental well-being. The platform is completely anonymous, and you may access it from the comfort and privacy of your own home (or wherever you have an internet connection). Below you may find some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"I had some trauma when I was younger that was severely affecting my life and my relationships in a negative way. I also didn't have even the kind of money to afford this service for a long period of time. But Danny took the time and discussed treatment options for PTSD that I did not know much about before. I had tried different forms of therapy with limited success, but being able to write out my feelings, thoughts, and experiences allowed me to express myself in a way that I would not feel comfortable doing while sitting one on one with someone in the same room with me. Maybe that's a sign of me being on the older side of the texting/dm/instant message generation, but the messenger discussion was a game changer for me. Danny and BetterHelp helped me so much in a short amount of time, and they didn't dismiss me or treat me as less important just because of my adverse financial situation. Because of Danny, I found a local EMDR therapist that I can see, and it has been so helpful. Thank you so much."
"I first came to BetterHelp without expecting too much, but right away I was paired up with Wendy Henner, and it couldn't have been a better match. I was crippled with grief and PTSD, to the point where I was becoming a shut-in because I just couldn't cope with it all. But after just one session with Wendy I saw immediate results. I learned how to let go of my grief, loss, sorrow, and shame. It was such a relief to finally be able to enjoy life again! I've been to counseling off and on throughout my entire life, but Wendy has an amazing approach to her therapy. Wendy Henner provides a very approachable, down-to-earth atmosphere to her therapy. She just "gets it." I can go on and on, but I'm too busy enjoying my new life now!"
Living with PTSD can be challenging for the individual, their families and loved ones but it doesn't have to a terrifying illness which takes over your life or reduces the quality of your life. The sooner you get your PTSD treated, the sooner you can go back to leading a normal, happy life with the traumatic event firmly behind you.
Family members are also strongly encouraged to consider therapy for their own well-being as well as to gain a better understanding on the illness and what they can do to support their loved one.
If you have PTSD and you are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please call the suicide hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). To be routed to the Veterans Crisis Line, dial 1 after being connected.
No matter how hopeless things may seem in the moment, remember, there are ways to move forward. All you need are the right tools. Take the first step today.