Background: Exposure to war-related trauma has long been recognised to have an adverse effect on mental health. We attempted to investigate whether people who have clinically significant personality-related problems 15 years after a war are more likely to have been exposed to severe war-related trauma than those who do not have significant personality difficulties.
Methods: A case -control study was conducted in southern Croatia, fifteen years after the 1991-1995 war. We recruited 268 participants: 182 cases who scored positively on the International Personality Disorder Examination scale (IPDE), and 86 controls who were IPDE negative. Severity of war-related trauma was assessed according to the 17 items on the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire (HTQ) trauma event scale, which were considered to be of severe (catastrophic) nature based on the ICD-10 description of catastrophic trauma and the opinion of trauma experts. All participants also completed measures of mental health (depression, anxiety and PTSD), social functioning and current substance misuse.
Results: Cases (IPDE positive) were eight times more likely to report exposure to severe war-related trauma than controls. This association increased after adjustments for demographic factors (OR = 10.1, 95% CI 5.0 to 20.4). The types of severe trauma most frequently reported were either the participants'own life being in direct danger or witnessing extreme violence inflicted on others or the result of violence towards others (murder, torture, seeing burned or disfigured bodies). Prevalences of depression, anxiety and PTSD were high among IPDE positive participants 15 years after exposure to war trauma. Their level of interpersonal dysfunction was considerably higher than that in controls (OR = 10.39, 95% CI 3.51 to 30.75). Alcohol consumption in cases was significantly higher with a mean of 14.24 units per week (sd = 11.03) when compared to controls whose mean number of alcohol units was 9.24 (sd = 7.25), t (73) = 2.16, p < 0.05, mean difference 4.99 (95% CI = 0.39 to 9.60). Similarly, a significantly higher number of cases reported current substance misuse (8.2% vs. 0.0%) X2 (1, n = 268) = 7.51, p < 0.05).
Conclusion: Exposure to severe war-related trauma is a risk factor for interpersonal dysfunction15 years after people were exposed to an armed conflict. These findings have implications for assessing and meeting the long-term mental health needs of people in war-affected regions. Further research needs to be done to increase our understanding about the relationship between severe war trauma and personality related problems.
Keywords: PTSD; Personality pathology; Severe trauma; War.