Virginia Tech professors publish research on posttraumatic stress
August 5, 2011
In the months after the April 16, 2007, shootings at Virginia Tech, two professors administered a survey to assess posttraumatic stress among students. The findings were recently published in the "Journal of Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy," published by the American Psychological Association.
According to researchers Michael Hughes, professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and Russell T. Jones, professor of psychology in the College of Science, 15.4 percent of Virginia Tech students experienced high levels of posttraumatic stress three to four months following the shootings in which 49 students and faculty at the university were shot, 32 of whom were lost.
These findings were from a Web-based survey of students that was conducted during the summer and fall after the shootings. A total of 4,639 students from the population of 23,214 (20 percent) agreed to complete the survey, which included questions about exposure to the shootings and other trauma-related stressors.
Prevalence of posttraumatic stress was significantly higher among women (23.2 percent) than men (9.9 percent). “The research suggests that higher female-than-male posttraumatic stress was primarily due to greater female losses in secondary networks,” Jones said. “These losses were in the form of deaths, injuries, close calls of individuals who were not considered close friends or relatives. These findings could also be a function of other losses characterized by perceived danger or harm in the absence of information or extended periods of worry.”
Exposure to trauma-related stressors varied greatly, from 4.6 percent who reported being in close proximity to the first shooting incident in Ambler-Johnston Hall to 64.5 percent unable to confirm the safety of friends. The stress exposures that were most strongly related to symptoms of posttraumatic stress were the death or injury of someone close and the inability to confirm the safety of friends during the two hours after the Norris Hall shootings. “It appears that the stressors most responsible for posttraumatic stress among Virginia Tech students had to do with social relationships – deaths and injuries involving friends and anxiety about the safety of friends,” said Hughes.
Because exposure to stressors was widespread among students on campus, the experience of symptoms of posttraumatic stress was also widespread, reaching well beyond those who had direct exposure to the actual shooting incidents. These findings have important implications for planning mental health treatment outreach. Widespread symptom prevalence made it difficult to target a small, highly exposed segment of students for mental health outreach. This low concentration of probable posttraumatic stress disorder will likely be a common feature of future mass trauma incidents, requiring broad-based outreach to find students needing mental health treatment intervention.
While Hughes and Jones served as co-principal investigators on this research, the article was co-authored by Jones, Melissa Brymer (University of California, Los Angeles), Wai Tat Chiu (Harvard Medical School), John A. Fairbank (Duke University Medical Center), Robert S. Pynoos (University of California, Los Angeles), Virginia Rothwell (Longwood University), Alan Steinberg (University of California, Los Angeles), and Ronald C. Kessler (Harvard Medical School).
Major funding for this study was provided by an unrestricted grant from the Jed Foundation. Support was also provided through funding received by Virginia Tech from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools.