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Ken MacIntosh: Britain is not a giant loony bin, whatever the surveys say


According to a new government-funded survey, young British women are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in ever greater numbers. The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, which is conducted every seven years, has reported that between the years 2007 and 2014 there was a near 300 per cent increase in the numbers of 16-24 year-old females suffering from PTSD, amounting to approximately 1 in 8 young women. The trend is astonishing. From whence this tsunami of trauma? In an age that has delivered ever greater female empowerment, be it legally, economically or culturally, and in a century which has, thus far, seen our nation avoid the ravages of war, pestilence, disease and famine, what is pummelling the psyches of our young women?

Reporting on the survey, Denis Campbell and Haroon Siddique, writing for The Guardiancite sexual violence, childhood trauma and, most prominently, the social pressures arising from the use of online social media outlets, as being underlying causes of said rise. In a separate Guardian article entitled, ‘This is modern Britain – no wonder young women have PTSD’, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, herself a sufferer of PTSD, identifies factors such as pornography, body-image, debt, low-paid work, sexual violence and “ideological Tory cuts” as fuelling the rise in PTSD.

There is, perhaps, a less politically loaded reason for the increase. One line in Campbell and Siddique’s 2000-word article sticks out, whereby they note that “the use of a more accurate screening tool in the new survey helps explain some of that rise [in PTSD amongst young females]”. The survey itself points out that, “the screening tool [in the most recent survey] changed to the PTSD-Check List (PCL) for better comparability with other surveys”.

A comparison of the survey questionnaires used in 2007 and 2014 shows a fundamental difference in their structures. In 2007 the questions that dealt with PTSD (see here, page 95) began by listing various potentially trauma-inducing events, such as witnessing a natural disaster, being raped or losing a loved one through murder, before then asking interviewees whether they had ever experienced such an event. And so, a pretty high bar, in terms of ‘event severity’, was set, one that might surely lead certain interviewees to believe that their own life experiences were petty by comparison. The 2007 survey then discounted any such events that had occurred before the subject’s sixteenth birthday (which, in the case of 16-24 year-olds, constituted most of their lives). Only then, once all the ‘lightweights’ had been removed  from consideration, did interviewees begin answering questions about specific symptoms.

By contrast, the 2014 questionnaire (see here, page 87) presents no such introductory ‘high bars’, instead utilising the PCL tool mentioned above to proceed directly to symptom-specific questions, such as asking the subject whether they have been bothered (over the previous month) by ‘trouble falling or staying asleep’, or by ‘feeling irritable’ [note that in 2014 the time parameter for symptom occurrence is ‘the previous month’, whereas in 2007 it was ‘at least twice in the past week’]. This ‘lack of exclusivity’ in the latter survey must inevitably draw in more respondents and elicit higher scoring. I, myself, racked up quite a few ‘scores’ in the 2014 questionnaire (with the PCL it’s impossible to score less than seventeen, even if you have no symptoms), whereas I would have scored ‘zero’ in 2007.

I am not arguing that the latter set of results is wrong. For all I know, they are spot on. I am, however, questioning whether it is possible to extrapolate a large rise in the occurrence of PTSD from these two surveys. But, who cares? We have our headlines. Women are suffering terribly, and it’s getting much worse. It all dovetails nicely with a narrative of deepening rape culture, body shaming and general victimhood.

And on a wider note, it is but the latest in a series of ‘findings’ which point to ever worsening mental health in virtually every demographic (for example, mengay menschool-childrenstudents). Britain is, seemingly, on an inexorable descent into mental illness, fuelled by the findings of care providers in search of clients. If these supposed trends continue, we might expect a future Britain to be no more than one gigantic psychiatric facility, wherein its frail hoards might be tended lovingly by healthcare staff imported from the Horn of Africa, or indeed, from any such region where the inhabitants have so much less reason than ourselves to feel mentally scarred.

(Image: Phil John)

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Ken MacIntosh
Ken MacIntosh
Ken MacIntosh is an NHS psychiatric nurse and is married with one daughter. Ken is interested in politics and mental health issues.

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