PTSD, other mental health issues haunt gunshot survivors

By Amy Norton

Health Day reporter

TUESDAY, May 23, 2023 (HealthDay News) — For people who survive gunshot wounds, the trauma can leave mental scars that worsen over time, a new study finds.

Among 87 adults treated for gunshot wounds at a Wisconsin trauma center, many had worsening symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression six months later.

The results were published on May 22 Annals of Internal Medicine, they come from one of the few studies that have tracked the long-term mental health of gunshot victims.

Gun violence research was hampered for years in the United States after Congress suspended federal funding in 1996. That changed just a few years ago.

“We haven’t been able to do gun research for a long time, so we don’t really know a lot about these long-term outcomes,” said Dr. Peter Ehrlich, director of the pediatric trauma center at the University of Michigan. CS Mott Children’s Hospital.

Ehrlich, who was not involved in the new research, published a study last year that looked at the mental health of American children and teenagers who suffered gun injuries — and the results were similar.

Of the 1,450 children injured by guns, 35% were newly diagnosed with a mental health condition in the following year—most commonly PTSD or substance abuse. This compares to 26% of American children who are injured in a motor vehicle accident.

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Ehrlich said that while the new study was small, it was well done and shed light on the broader reality.

“Gun violence has consequences that go beyond the physical,” he said. “There may be long-term effects on mental health.”

The study comes at a time when the number of gun deaths in the United States is on the rise. In 2021, such deaths will reach a 40-year high — just under 49,000, according to the Giffords Law Center, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control.

But far more Americans survive gun injuries and suffer the consequences. According to Giffords, more than 1 million Americans have been shot in the past decade.

For the new study, researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee followed 87 adults treated for gunshot wounds at their institution. None of the wounds were suicidal.

Patients answered standard questionnaires about mental health symptoms and physical health-related quality of life at two time points: one month and six months after the injury.

Overall, the study found that both PTSD symptoms and depression worsened over time. After six months, the group’s average PTSD score exceeded the threshold for a diagnosis of the condition, while their average depression score approached the threshold for a diagnosis of that disorder. At both one and six months, patients typically reported poor physical health-related quality of life.

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Individuals varied widely in how they fared, said lead author Sydney Timmer-Murillo, a postdoctoral fellow in health and trauma psychology.

And one question for future studies is to figure out which factors make some people more vulnerable to mental health deterioration.

According to both researchers, it is easy to see that shooting victims often struggle with the consequences. Many are likely to live in communities marked by gun violence, making recovery from trauma particularly difficult.

“People don’t experience gun violence in a vacuum,” Timmer-Murillo said.

He said it’s critical that aftercare for survivors of gun injuries be “comprehensive,” aimed at helping them recover both physically and mentally.

Timmer-Murillo said patients at the Wisconsin trauma center routinely undergo mental health screenings while recovering from their injuries in the hospital. This is in part to combat the limited access to mental health care that many patients face after leaving hospital.

In general, many gunshot survivors do not receive such screening, Ehrlich said.

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In a 2022 survey of US trauma centers, researchers found that only a minority routinely screened trauma patients for PTSD or depression, while 30% said they had screening and treatment programs specifically for gunshot-injured patients. .

However, the American College of Surgeons recently issued new guidelines for mental health screenings for trauma centers with the goal of identifying at-risk individuals after any traumatic injury.

When it comes to gunshot wounds, survival rates have improved, Timmer-Murillo noted. Then the question is “what burden do these people carry as survivors?” Asked.

Ehrlich agreed, noting that the issue affects not only big cities, but also communities across the United States.

“This is a uniquely American problem,” he said.

More information

Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group, has resources for survivors of gun violence.

SOURCES: Sydney Timmer-Murillo, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Health and Trauma Psychology, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; Peter Ehrlich, MD, MSc, Professor, Surgery, Medical Director, Level 1 Pediatric Trauma Center, CS Mott Children’s Hospital, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Annals of Internal Medicine, May 22, 2023