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Acute Posttraumatic Stress: Nonacceptance of Early Intervention

Lars Weisæth, MD

Published: January 3, 2001

Article Abstract

Psychological resistance may be of considerable importance in the posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) population, considering that researchers in the field of traumatic stress are frequently unsuccessful in achieving high response rates, that many subjects suffering from PTSD never seek help, and that dropouts from therapy are frequent. This article presents data on the main complaints reported in the acute aftermath of an industrial disaster by 246 employees who had been exposed to the disaster. The dominant concerns were symptomatic complaints related to posttraumatic stress reactions rather than external problems. Sleep disturbance, anxiety/fear responses, and physical symptoms were reported by individuals with complaints in the acute phase as most problematic, while irritability and depressive symptoms appeared very infrequently among the reported main complaints. A high specificity and sensitivity were achieved in predicting later PTSD (as defined by DSM-III criteria) by applying early response variables; thus, there were few false-positives and false-negatives. There was a considerable overlap between the PTSD predictors and the main symptom complaints. From a prevention point of view, this should be advantageous, since it would bring the right people to seek help. However, in a significant proportion of the acutely distressed, the reluctance to seek help was motivated by the very symptoms that predicted PTSD. Even a relatively high rate of subjects agreeing to be screened (82.8%) would have lost 42% of those who qualified for a diagnosis of PTSD, and more than half of the subjects with severe outcomes would not have been included. For primary and secondary prevention, the findings suggest that early screening and outreach should be very active.

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