Posttraumatic stress disorder in a community group of former prisoners of war: a normative response to severe trauma

Am J Psychiatry. 1997 Nov;154(11):1576-81. doi: 10.1176/ajp.154.11.1576.


Objective: The goal of this study was to assess and describe the long-term impact of traumatic prisoner of war (POW) experiences within the context of posttraumatic psychopathology. Specifically, the authors attempted to investigate the relative degree of normative response represented by posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in comparison to other DSM axis I disorders often found to be present, either alone or concomitant with other disorders, in survivors of trauma.

Method: A community group of 262 U.S. World War II and Korean War former POWs was recruited. These men had been exposed to the multiple traumas of combat, capture, and imprisonment, yet few had ever sought mental health treatment. They were assessed for psychopathology with diagnostic interviews and psychodiagnostic testing. Regression analyses were used to assess the contributions of age at capture, war trauma, and postwar social support to PTSD and the other diagnosed disorders.

Results: More than half of the men (53%) met criteria for lifetime PTSD, and 29% met criteria for current PTSD. The most severely traumatized group (POWs held by the Japanese) had PTSD lifetime rates of 84% and current rates of 59%. Fifty-five percent of those with current PTSD were free from the other current axis I disorders (uncomplicated PTSD). In addition, 34% of those with lifetime PTSD had PTSD as their only lifetime axis I diagnosis. Regression analyses indicated that age at capture, severity of exposure to trauma, and postmilitary social support were moderately predictive of PTSD and only weakly predictive of other disorders.

Conclusions: These findings indicate that PTSD is a persistent, normative, and primary consequence of exposure to severe trauma.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Comorbidity
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Prevalence
  • Prisoners / psychology*
  • Probability
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales / statistics & numerical data
  • Psychological Tests / statistics & numerical data
  • Regression Analysis
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / diagnosis
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / epidemiology*
  • Veterans / psychology
  • Warfare