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Youth complex trauma disorder under-recognized and misdiagnosed, say experts

November 3, 2017 0 Comments

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) defines complex trauma as “children’s exposure to multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature, and the wide-ranging, long-term impact of this exposure.” Complex trauma disorder is the cumulative result of repeated episodes of one or more traumatic events, including neglect, separation, physical and/or sexual abuse, verbal abuse and intimidation. Perpetrators are often adults, and the emotional scars from childhood can lead to adverse problems later, including alcohol and drug abuse, violent behavior, crime, sexual promiscuity and food addiction.

There is a general tendency to automatically diagnose trauma as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Mandy Habib, a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Institute for Adolescent Trauma Treatment and Training at the Adelphi University, New York, highlighted the difference between PTSD and complex trauma. “With complex trauma, it is the difference between experiencing a traumatic event and having a traumatic life,” she said. Habib firmly believes that due to the under-recognition of the condition, complex trauma should be classified separately in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Complex trauma is marked by a wide range of symptoms, like difficult relationships with peers and family members, poor self-esteem and feelings of shame or guilt. The condition also leads to thinking and learning impairments. Some youngsters feel a sense of detachment from one’s body (depersonalization). PTSD symptoms, on the other hand, can include flashbacks, frequent nightmares, repeatedly thinking about the traumatic event, depression and anxiety.

Separate classification in DSM will prevent misdiagnosis

An official recognition of complex trauma disorder in the DSM will prevent the misdiagnosis of the condition in children and teens. Many youngsters suffering from complex trauma are mistakenly diagnosed with bipolar disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In children, such a misdiagnosis results in prescribing of powerful medicines, which fail to treat the disorder and manage trauma symptoms.

According to the United States Children’s Bureau, nearly 6,83,000 children were victims of abuse or neglect in 2015. Of these, 75.3 percent were victims of neglect, 17.2 percent had suffered physical mistreatment and 8.4 percent were sexually abused. Some were victims of more than one type of maltreatment. Abuse and neglect resulted in an estimated 1,670 child fatalities during the year.

Alan M. Steinberg, associate director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress (NCCTS) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), said mental health researchers across the U.S. are collecting evidence which can support a separate categorization of the disorder in the DSM. “What is happening with these children is not fully captured in the definition of PTSD,” he said.

Treatment possible through timely intervention

According to Steinberg, proven therapies, such as one-on-one and/or group counseling are effective in addressing the disorder. The awareness of such treatments needs to be publicized among a larger number of mental health professionals and the general public.

Other efforts that are helping increase awareness about the disorder among youth include YouTube videos like “Never Give Up”. This documentary-style video features youth who have been through complex trauma, and narrate their experiences of dealing with the condition and choosing better coping strategies.

If not properly identified and treated during childhood, complex trauma can lead to a lifetime of adverse impacts. White River Academy, the leading boarding school for boys in Utah, uses evidence-based treatment to help teen boys aged 12 to 17 years. Call at our 24/7 helpline or chat online with our experts to know more about the best troubled teen boarding school in the U.S.

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