Background: The study estimates the relative importance of specific types of traumas experienced in the community in terms of their prevalence and risk of leading to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Methods: A representative sample of 2181 persons in the Detroit area aged 18 to 45 years were interviewed by telephone to assess the lifetime history of traumatic events and PTSD, according to DSM-IV. Posttraumatic stress disorder was assessed with respect to a randomly selected trauma from the list of traumas reported by each respondent, using a modified version of the Diagnostic Interview Schedule, Version IV, and the World Health Organization Composite International Diagnostic Interview.
Results: The conditional risk of PTSD following exposure to trauma was 9.2%. The highest risk of PTSD was associated with assaultive violence (20.9%). The trauma most often reported as the precipitating event among persons with PTSD (31% of all PTSD cases) was sudden unexpected death of a loved one, an event experienced by 60% of the sample, and with a moderate risk of PTSD (14.3%). Women were at higher risk of PTSD than men, controlling for type of trauma.
Conclusions: The risk of PTSD associated with a representative sample of traumas is less than previously estimated. Previous studies have overestimated the conditional risk of PTSD by focusing on the worst events the respondents had ever experienced. Although recent research has focused on combat, rape, and other assaultive violence as causes of PTSD, sudden unexpected death of a loved one is a far more important cause of PTSD in the community, accounting for nearly one third of PTSD cases.