PTSD symptoms shift when freshmen start college

Freshmen in college with post-traumatic stress disorder may see their symptoms fluctuate, a new study suggests.

These young adults are at particular risk for problem drinking and other harmful behaviors that can potentially exacerbate symptoms, says Jennifer Read, professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo.

“You have a group of young people exposed to some trauma who are away from many of the things that would otherwise provide them with support. Even those who are commuting have still entered into a new way of life.”

For the study, published in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research and Policy, researchers analyzed a class of 649 freshman who had suffered some kind of trauma, using a 17-question form designed to assess PTSD symptoms in civilians.

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Based on their answers, the students were separated into three categories: those with severe symptoms, moderate symptoms, or no symptoms.

Each participant was subsequently assessed five additional times during the year: three times during their first semester and twice during their second semester.

The findings suggest significant early variations in how people’s symptoms fluctuate. Most of the change is happening when students first transition to college. That’s when the symptoms are malleable.

However, as the students progress through their freshman year, they become more fixed in their categories, a finding that points to the possible benefits of early intervention.

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“This is relevant to college administrators for a few different reasons,” says Read. “One is to know that there is a class of students whose symptoms are getting worse or staying bad. While students are first transitioning the symptoms are the most malleable. So early detection and intervention are important. If these people can be identified, then outreach could be provided,” she says.

Many of the students, however, saw their symptoms moderate, a finding that shows people can recover naturally, Read says.

“It’s encouraging that people with PTSD symptoms are getting better on their own. Resilience is common in human behavior. People can have bad things happen to them, but will most likely be okay. It doesn’t mean they won’t be affected, or that they won’t be changed in some way, but they will probably be okay.”

Although resolution of PTSD symptoms was the most common pattern in the study’s participants, there is a subset of people who arrive as college freshman with PSTD and see no change in their condition, Read cautions.

“Drinking affects this. If someone is drinking regularly or excessively, the likelihood is less that they’ll move from a high category to a lower category.”

Other researchers from the University at Buffalo and the University of Pittsburgh are coauthors of the study.

Source: University at Buffalo

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