Traumatic events have long-term impact on children

November 22, 1999

Experiencing a sudden, unpredictable traumatic event puts children at high risk of developing stress disorders, according to a study of first and third graders who were held hostage in a school classroom.

"In children, post-traumatic stress disorders often seem to have a protracted course, even after a single trauma," said study co-author Gilbert Vila, MD.

The researchers from Necker-Enfants-Malades Hospital in Paris, France studied 26 first and third graders for 18 months after the students' two-hour ordeal as the hostages of a gunman who threatened several of the children but injured none. The results of their research appear in the November/December issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

Nearly all of the students (96 percent) exhibited symptoms of acute stress after the event, and roughly half of them continued to experience post-traumatic stress symptoms throughout the 18-month study period. Seven of the 26 children (27 percent) were diagnosed with full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder during the study period.

Vila and colleagues also followed 21 students who were not hostages, but who were present in school on the day of the gunman's intrusion. Roughly 40 percent of these students exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress four months after the event, and three (15 percent) of these indirectly-exposed children were diagnosed with full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The fact that children indirectly involved in a traumatic event are at risk of developing a post-traumatic stress disorder pleads in favor of a broader application of therapeutic services to all 'involved' children," said Vila.

"The natural course of the disorder and the availability of useful therapeutic programs suggest that it is worthwhile and necessary to maintain monitoring at least six months after the traumatic event," he added.
Psychosomatic Medicine is the official peer-reviewed journal of the American Psychosomatic Society, published bimonthly. For information about the journal, contact Joel E. Dimsdale, MD, at 619-543-5468.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health < >. For information about the Center, call Petrina Chong, < > 202-387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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