Primary Sources: Are Youth-Serving Mental Health Agencies Underdiagnosing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

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Photograph of a woman comforting a weeping teen girl.

"Underdiagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in At Risk Youth" (abstract), Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol. 23, Issue 5, October 2010.

What it's about: Researchers studied two agencies that treat at-risk youth with mental health problems. The researchers looked at how often youth were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. Ten years later, the researchers returned to find out if agencies were better able to diagnose PTSD.

Why read it: Because of the many kinds of trauma they experience, runaway and homeless youth may be at high risk for PTSD. This very complex mental health problem can cause someone to relive a terrifying event in nightmares, flashbacks or uncontrollable thoughts. Victims of PTSD may also feel hopeless and numb. The condition can get worse if untreated. It can also lead to other problems, such as drug and alcohol abuse.

Biggest takeaways for youth workers: The programs were diagnosing youth with PTSD at very low rates (5.4 percent or less). But when the researchers conducted detailed screening interviews with youth, they diagnosed close to half of youth with PTSD. Ten years later, one of the programs still diagnosed youth with PTSD very rarely. The other had increased its diagnosis by using a PTSD-specific survey to screen young people for the condition. Still, the researchers believed both programs could have diagnosed more youth with PTSD if they’d had the resources to interview each young person in detail.

The researchers suggest that youth-serving programs use screenings specifically developed to identify trauma symptoms. Doing say may help programs more accurately diagnose youth with PTSD. 

Additional reference: Read "Primary Sources: Understanding Trauma and Transience among Runaway and Homeless Youth," which describes another study on PTSD in homeless youth whose authors used the Mini International Neuropsychiatry Interview, or MINI, to screen for PTSD.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.)

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