Danish Study Challenges Previous Thinking About PTSD

For most of us, the images of battle are so gut-wrenching that we have little difficulty believing that they could traumatize soldiers deeply. Post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers has been given lots of attention and funding since the United States has been sending thousands of young men and women off to multiple battlefronts in recent years. Now, a study from Denmark is challenging the conventional wisdom surrounding the disorder.

According to the Danish research, the battles of childhood may actually be better predictors of PTSD than wartime. Although plenty of effort has been going into understanding the condition, treatment for returning combat veterans has been hampered by the glaring absence of baseline data. In other words, mental health professionals have been working without information from before the war against which they can measure post-war symptoms. A few studies have been done using before and after combat measures, but even these have taken only a single pre-deployment baseline.

The Danish study is so different because it used multiple tests and questionnaires administered before, during and after active duty. The surveys asked not only about current situations, but also inquired about childhood instances of violence and/or abuse. Upon their return, soldiers were tracked for weeks and even months.

What researchers found was that some soldiers actually improved during their period of deployment and worsened upon return. These soldiers had less education and more experiences of household abuse and violence. The Danish team believes that their findings point to PTSD as more connected to traumatic home life situations rather than war experiences. In fact, the team suggests that for some of these soldiers, life in a military unit was more purposeful and supportive than their own home environment which would explain the pattern of symptoms being worse in their home country.

The Danish study should at a minimum set the bar for obtaining measures. It may well turn current understanding of PTSD around.