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Risk of Trauma Exposure and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Among Children Who Experience Parental Incarceration

a PSC Small Fund Research Project

Investigator:   Lori Wallace

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an under-recognized public health problem that is estimated to affect 7.7 million adults in the U.S. It is a treatable anxiety disorder that is associated with a number of negative social consequences, including incomplete high school and college education, marital instability, current unemployment, and an estimated annual cost of lost productivity due to PTSD-related work impairment in excess of three billion dollars. And while a number of effective treatments have been developed to reduce the symptoms associated with the disorder, research suggest that only about 7% of those who are affected will actually seek treatment within the first year of onset. To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must meet a number of exposure and symptom criteria that are a direct result of experiencing, witnessing or being confronted with a traumatic event, which is defined as an event that 1) involves actual or threatened death, serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others, and 2) elicits feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror. However, given that exposure to a traumatic event is fundamental to the very definition of PTSD, it is surprising that most of the epidemiologic research on PTSD gives little consideration to the role of the larger social context in shaping the traumatic events to which an individual is exposed. Thus, the overall aim of this dissertation study will be to address this gap in the PTSD research literature by examining the relationship between macro-level, social contextual factors and the increased risk of trauma exposure and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More specifically, this study will examine whether mass incarceration, the social contextual factor of interest, might increase risk of trauma exposure and posttraumatic stress among children who experience parental incarceration.

Funding Period: 03/01/2013 to 06/30/2014

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