Three months after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in the United States, 10 percent of black adolescents attending an inner-city Southern high school were reporting clinically significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress, such as hypervigilance and recurring, disturbing memories, according to researchers at the Medical College of Georgia.
A related MCG study of the psychological and cardiovascular impact on adolescents of the war in Iraq showed, not surprisingly, that those in military families were most impacted as evidenced by elevated resting blood pressures and heart rates associated with their loved ones' proximity to the war.
Both studies are being presented at the 62nd annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society in Orlando, Fla., March 3-6.
"One of the purposes of publishing a study like this is to alert pediatricians, school counselors, caregivers, parents and school administrators of potential stress rates related to reactions to terrorist attacks that might occur in the future," says Dr. Vernon A. Barnes, physiologist and lead author on the 9-11 abstract. "That concern did not end, but really just began with 9-11."
The Iraq War study has similar purposes, said Dr. Frank A. Treiber, child psychologist, director of MCG's Georgia Prevention Institute and the abstract's lead author. "One of the concerns I have is that families with loved ones involved in the war on terrorism are undoubtedly experiencing emotional and physical strain. Are we adequately identifying and providing assistance to those who would benefit from help in coping with the strain before it becomes clinically manifest?" says Dr. Treiber, who has submitted a grant for an intervention program for youth with high normal blood pressure to the National Institutes of Health. Such a program might be beneficial to military dependents.
The researchers already were screening high school students for high normal blood pressures to assess the impact of meditation on lowering pressure for those at risk to be hypertensive adults. These studies, funded by the National Institutes of Health and American Heart Association, have continued to show the benefit of meditation on lowering blood pressure and improving school-related behavior. Meditation along with other interventions may help young people impacted by events related to the war on terrorism, the researchers say.
The 9-11 study looked at 400 African-American adolescents at T.W. Josey Comprehensive High School in Augusta, Ga., measuring heart rates and blood pressures of these teens. Researchers used standardized measures to look at psychosocial resources such as control, hope, optimism and perceived support as well as post-traumatic stress symptoms. They also asked adolescents about their usual level and expression of anger and hostility, noting a correlation between those who said they expressed anger the most and those reporting the most negative impact from 9-11.
"Very little has been done with children in terms of their reaction to these attacks and nothing has been published regarding the impact on adolescents," Dr. Barnes says. His study found that 9-11 attacks had quite an impact, even though the adolescents lived far from the terrorist attacks, in that 28 percent of the teens felt pessimistic about their future, 26 percent expressed a loss of faith in government protection and 22 percent were pessimistic about world peace. Nearly 54 percent reported feeling closer to at least one person because of how they reacted to the disaster. Other U.S. studies involving adults living far from the 9-11 attack sites have shown similar symptoms of physical and psychological stress.
The Iraq War study looked at similar parameters for 149 adolescents at the Academy of Richmond County in Augusta, the high school for most adolescents who live on base at nearby Fort Gordon. Studies were conducted when the war began last March and again last May when President Bush announced the end of major hostilities. Based on self-report, 34 of the adolescents had parents or other family members deployed, 64 had members waiting to be deployed and 51 had no relatives in the military.
"During the first week of the war, even though none of the adolescents had relatives directly involved in the initial attacks, some youth with relatives in the military were already worried and concerned for their loved ones," Dr. Treiber says. "They were already anxious and experiencing problems with recurrent disturbing thoughts and images related to war. Some reported having bad dreams about it. It's what you would imagine: there was a high level of anxiety in terms of what might happen to their loved ones." Military youth, particularly those with family members deployed, exhibited higher blood pressures, heart rates and greater anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress than civilian youth, Dr. Treiber says, noting that their problems at that point did not mandate clinical intervention. In measurements taken two weeks after the end of major hostilities was announced, symptoms were strongest in white adolescents with deployed family members.
"Given the continued presence of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and mounting casualties, further research is warranted to determine whether stress reduction interventions may be effective in reducing stress levels and associated indices of sympathetic nervous system arousal in youth of military personnel," he and colleagues wrote in the abstract.
"Behavioral stress reduction, such as meditation and coping skills training, might help decrease levels of anxiety so that they are not in a constant state of hypervigilance, which will help decrease their blood pressures, heart rates and stress hormones," Dr. Treiber says. "I think America needs to realize that, regardless of our own political views, we need to support our efforts in Iraq and elsewhere in terms of not only supporting the soldiers but also their families left behind. We need to make extra efforts as neighbors and friends to provide them with emotional and social support."
The Medical College of Georgia is the state's health sciences university and includes the Schools of Allied Health Sciences, Dentistry, Graduate Studies, Medicine and Nursing, the MCG Medical Center and the Children's Medical Center.