Approximately 1 in 4 individuals who experience a traumatic injury will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Despite this high incidence, we do not know how PTSD develops in the days and weeks immediately after a traumatic event. As a result, we cannot identify those at risk for PTSD shortly after a trauma and provide preventative interventions. Many victims of a trauma go on to suffer for weeks, months, and years without appropriate treatment, which can slow their physical recovery as well.
Challenges in Diagnosing PTSD
In order to better help those who may develop PTSD, we first need a method to identify those at highest risk for the disorder. Addressing this problem has proven quite challenging. There are many presentations of PTSD, which makes it hard to determine an indicator that will determine risk for the disorder. Unlike an infection that may reveal itself quickly, PTSD develops gradually over a period of several weeks, which limits the effectiveness of a single test to identify risk.
A New Way to Identify PTSD
To address these limitations, the Center for Research on Emotion, Stress, and Technology (CREST) and the UVM Trauma Center are conducting a collaborative research project on recovery from a traumatic event. Entitled the “Mobile Assessment After Trauma” project, we are using mobile phones to assess mental and physical recovery every day for 30 days after a traumatic event.
Patients are recruited from the hospital after they have been admitted for a trauma. With the help of the staff, we meet with patients, install a mobile application on their personal phone to assess their recovery, and follow-up with the everyday for a month. We then check in with them one and three months after their injury to see how they are doing globally.
Our study is still on going, but we have enrolled more than 100 participants in our study and have completed follow-ups with nearly 70. We are still actively recruiting participants.
Results to Date
Our preliminary results, which are currently under review at a peer-reviewed journal, are promising. We find that most patients complete about half of the mobile phone assessments, find them helpful, and not much of a bother. The patients who have finished our study have given us a lot of great feedback on how to improve our application further as well. Most exciting, is that it appears that early severity for some PTSD symptoms may serve as indicators of long-term risk – but additional work is needed to confirm these results.
If these findings are supported, we intend to test a treatment approach that can be integrated into the mobile application to see if we can address some of these early risk factors. Should this prove successful, we would have a set of powerful tools to prevent very serious mental health conditions from occurring after a trauma and improve overall patient health.
Matthew Price, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and researcher at the University of Vermont who focuses on traumatic stress. He is most interested in using new technologies to treat and prevent the mental health consequences of trauma exposure.