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12 March 2004

Most SA kids exposed to trauma

Children and adolescents in South Africa are all too often exposed to extreme traumas. Girls are often subject to sexual assault, including rape. Boys may be victims of gang violence or severe bullying. Car accidents, gun fights and other forms of trauma remain common.

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Children and adolescents in South Africa are all too often exposed to extreme traumas. Girls are often subject to sexual assault, including rape. Boys may be victims of gang violence or severe bullying. Car accidents, gun fights and other forms of trauma remain common.

After such a trauma, most adolescents not unexpectedly show symptoms such as intrusive memories of the event, nightmares, avoiding reminders of the event and feeling anxious or down.

Unfortunately, in a small number, these symptoms persist. When persistent symptoms interfere with function, children and adolescents can be said to suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.

In a recent survey done at nine Cape schools (1 140 children participated), 99% of these children reported exposure to at least one traumatic event in the past year. Of these, around 20% or more will develop posttraumatic stress disorder. Therefore, in this survey, one out of five children that were exposed to trauma, developed PTSD.

In the long run, if these children are not treated appropriately, they may have severe problems in adolescence and adulthood, e.g. depression, substance abuse, suicide behaviour or other anxiety disorders.

Treatment
Fortunately, new treatments are being developed for adolescents with PTSD. These include both specific kinds of "talk therapy" (psychotherapy) and new medications. Although it may seem counter-intuitive to use medication in children who have suffered a psychological trauma, researchers are increasingly aware that psychological trauma can lead to abnormalities in specific brain circuits. It is possible that both effective psychotherapies and medication are able to reverse such disturbances.

The MRC Unit on Anxiety Disorders is able to provide information on posttraumatic stress disorder. Contact them at 938-9229.

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