Spike in PTSD, acute stress disorder observed among college students from 2017-2022

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The disorders can impact the academic and social functioning of college students and have been associated with long-term health issues.

Spike in PTSD, acute stress disorder observed among college students from 2017-2022 | Image Credit: © Drobot Dean - © Drobot Dean - stock.adobe.com.

Spike in PTSD, acute stress disorder observed among college students from 2017-2022 | Image Credit: © Drobot Dean - © Drobot Dean - stock.adobe.com.

From 2017 to 2022, investigators of a study recently published in JAMA Network Open found a notable increase in the prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress disorder (ASD) among college students.1

According to the investigative team of Yusen Zhai, PhD and Xue Du, PhD, these critical mental health issues can stem from traumatic events such as sexual assault, campus shootings, physical violence, and natural disasters.1

Zhai works with the Department of Human Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, while Du works at the Heersink School of Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.1

The team noted PTSD features persistent symptoms such as avoidance and intrusion symptoms that can last more than 1 month after trauma exposure, whereas ASD features similar symptoms within a 3-day-to-1-month posttrauma duration. The disorders can impact the academic and social functioning of college students and have been associated with long-term health issues.1

Zhai and Du aimed to assess trends in diagnosed PTSD and ASD prevalence among college students in the United States from 2017-2022, doing so by a serial cross-sectional study. The study featured individuals from 5 waves of the Healthy Minds Study, from 332 higher education institutions in the United States with diverse institutional types and geographic locations. This ensured representation of multiple college student populations.1

To mitigate response biases, sample weights were applied based on institutional demographics such as sex, race, academic level, and grade point average. Outcome variables were diagnoses of PTSD and ASD based on a mental diagnosis issued by health care providers. A value of 1 indicated a positive diagnosis for PTSD or ASD.1

A model for each diagnosis assessed the change in odds of estimated prevalence in the study period, using survey years as a continuous independent variable. 2-sided P < .05 was statistical significance and analyses were conducted from January to March 2024 using SPSS version 28.1

In all, the study included 392,377 participants (57.7% female), of which 19,349 (4.9% weighted) had diagnosed PTSD and 1814 (0.5%, weighted) had diagnosed ASD. An upward trend was observed by the investigators related to prevalence of both PTSD and ASD amid the study period. For PTSD, prevalence increased by 4.1%, up from 3.4% in 2017-2018, to 7.5% in 2021-2022.1

ASD increased by 0.5% from 0.2% in 2017-2018, to 0.7% in 2021-2022. Increases in the prevalence of PTSD (adjusted OR, 2.15 [95% CI, 2.06-2.24]; P < .001) and ASD (adjusted OR, 2.25 [95% CI, 1.96-2.58]; P < .001) remained statistically significant after adjustment for the participants’ demographic differences.1

Authors noted these findings were consistent with recent research that reported a surge in psychiatric diagnoses. This research, a national study published in June 2022 in the Journal of Affective Disorders, revealed a 50% prevalence increase from 2013 to 2021 among students at 373 schools. The largest increase in prevalence was observed in American Indian individuals, while Arab Americans experienced a 22% prevalence increase and an 18% decrease in treatment.1,2

Continued rise in prevalence could be the result of several factors according to the investigators, including pandemic-related stressors such as the loss of loved ones, and the effect of traumatic events (racial trauma and school shootings, among others).1

“Despite the study limitations, including the retrospective, self-reported data and single questions for diagnosed PTSD and ASD, these findings suggest the need for targeted, trauma-informed prevention and intervention strategies by mental health professionals and policy makers to support the affected student population,” the study authors concluded.1

References:

  1. Zhai Y, Du X. Trends in diagnosed posttraumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder in US college students, 2017-2022. JAMA Netw Open. 2024;7(5):e2413874. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2024.13874
  2. Sarah Ketchen Lipson, Sasha Zhou, Sara Abelson, et al. Trends in college student mental health and help-seeking by race/ethnicity: Findings from the national healthy minds study, 2013–2021. Journal of Affective Disorders. Volume 306, 2022, Pages 138-147. ISSN 0165-0327. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2022.03.038.

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