Making Sense of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Illness Perceptions Among Traumatic Injury Survivors

Published in: Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, v. 3, no. 1, Mar. 2011, p. 67-76

Posted on RAND.org on February 28, 2011

by Eunice C. Wong, David P. Kennedy, Grant N. Marshall, Sarah J. Gaillot

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More than 1.5 million persons in the United States sustain traumatic physical injuries each year. A significant proportion of traumatic injury survivors develop serious mental health problems, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), yet few obtain professional mental health care. According to the commonsense model of self-regulation (Leventhal, Diefenbach, & Leventhal, 1992), illness-related perceptions can influence coping responses, including the use of professional treatment. Using the commonsense model as a guiding framework, we conducted semistructured interviews with nontreatment-seeking trauma injury survivors with PTSD (N = 23). Illness perceptions regarding the following key conceptual dimensions were examined: PTSD symptoms (identity) experienced or perceived consequences of PTSD symptoms, and beliefs about the causes, controllability, and course of PTSD symptoms. Results revealed that no respondents identified their symptoms as indicative of PTSD. Common illness perceptions included believing that symptoms would be short-lived, that symptoms were reflective of poor physical health or were a natural reaction to life in a violent community, and that symptoms were functionally adaptive. Respondents also reported exerting some limited control over symptoms by relying on religious forms of coping. None of the respondents perceived professional treatment as being able to completely control symptoms. Findings indicated that respondents' conceptualizations of PTSD symptoms might have inhibited the recognition of symptoms as a serious mental health condition that warrants professional treatment.

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