Traumatic Exposure and PTSD in College Students

Outdoor on stairs girl consoling to sad boy in campus.
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Traumatic exposure and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in college students and other populations often occur together. Within the general population, about 8 percent of people will have PTSD at some point in their lives. Rates of PTSD in college students are not often reported, despite the fact that more than a third of people in the United States between the ages of 18 and 24 are in college. In addition, college students are also at higher risk for certain types of traumatic events that have a high likelihood of leading to PTSD, such as a sexual assault.

To better determine the rates of traumatic event exposure and PTSD in college students, researchers at several universities around the United States studied more than 3,000 incoming college freshman at two public universities. The researchers asked the students about the types of traumatic events they had experienced, as well as whether or not they were experiencing any PTSD symptoms.

Rates of Traumatic Event Exposure

Two-thirds of the students said they had experienced at least one traumatic event. The most common traumatic events were a life-threatening illness and the sudden death of a loved one, with a little over a third of the students indicating that they had been exposed to these events at some point in their lives. About a quarter of the students said they had experienced a physical assault and/or an accident/natural disaster/fire. A sexual assault was experienced by 7 percent of the students. Women were more likely than men to have experienced traumatic events.

Rates of PTSD

Just under 10 percent of the college students were found to meet criteria for PTSD. Not surprisingly, PTSD was most common among people exposed to a sexual or physical assault. Again, women were more likely to meet criteria for PTSD. This was likely because women had also experienced more traumatic events than men, and the more traumatic events one experiences, the greater the risk for developing PTSD.

Getting the Help You Need

This study shows that PTSD does not discriminate. Although certain groups of people may be at high risk for developing PTSD, a traumatic event that eventually leads to PTSD can happen to anyone. This study also shows that PTSD does not have to be a roadblock in your journey through life. Even though many students reported exposure to traumatic events and PTSD, they were entering college and pursuing their goals. If you have experienced a traumatic event, it is very important to seek out help. Therapy can help you move forward in your life.

There are a number of effective treatments for PTSD, and treating PTSD can improve other areas of your life. For example, if someone successfully treats their PTSD, they often find that other disorders or problems go away as well (although their other conditions may require specific, targeted treatments). Finding a mental health provider can be an overwhelming and stressful task if you do not know where to look. Fortunately, there are several websites that provide free searches to help you find appropriate mental health providers in your area.

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Article Sources
  • Read, J.P., Ouimette, P., White, J., Colder, C., & Farrow, S. (2011). Rates of DSM-IV-TR trauma exposure and posttraumatic stress disorder among newly matriculated college students. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 3, 148-156.