Teens Involved in Vehicle Crashes at Higher Risk for Developing Mental Disorders

New research from a team of American scientists indicates that younger and older teenagers involved in motor vehicle crashes experience an emotional trauma-related increase in their risks for developing depression or diagnosable alcohol problems. Teenagers in the U.S. have a relatively high level of exposure to nonfatal and fatal motor vehicle accidents. In a study published in February 2015 in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina sought to determine how often teen survivors of such accidents subsequently develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression or problems with alcohol abuse. The researchers concluded that involvement in a motor vehicle crash substantially increases the average adolescent’s risks for these mental health issues.

Teenagers and Motor Vehicle Crashes

According to figures compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 have the nation’s highest age-related risks for involvement in a nonfatal or fatal motor vehicle accident. In 2011 (the last year with fully available CDC statistics), nearly 292,000 teens in this category were involved in such an accident. Of those involved, 2,650 died from their injuries. All told, teen drivers are involved in a fatal motor vehicle crash almost 200 percent more often than drivers who have reached their 20th birthdays. Groups of adolescents particularly likely to experience a crash include boys and young men, people who have only recently received their licenses to drive and people who transport other teenagers. There are a number of underlying explanations for teenagers’ increased exposure to nonfatal and fatal motor vehicle crashes. Examples of known contributing factors include exceeding the speed limit, failing to maintain proper distance from other vehicles and failing to recognize dangerous driving conditions. Other contributing factors include a low rate of seat belt use among teenagers and the relatively severe impact of alcohol consumption on adolescents’ accident risks. Nearly one-quarter of all teen drivers who die in crashes have been drinking. In combination with a lack of seat belt use, driving under the influence of alcohol plays a role in 71 percent of all fatal, adolescent-involved motor vehicle accidents.

Motor Vehicle Crashes and Emotional Trauma

Motor vehicle crashes are well-recognized as sources of traumatic experiences capable of triggering the onset of PTSD, as well as the onset of major depression or a number of mental health conditions classified as anxiety disorders. Roughly 9 percent of all adult crash survivors develop PTSD, the National Center for PTSD reports. Among people who receive mental health assistance in the aftermath of a motor vehicle accident, the PTSD rate commonly reaches 60 percent. Major depression or some other condition classified as a mood disorder (e.g., persistent depressive disorder) affects as many as half of all crash survivors attempting to access PTSD treatment. Roughly one-quarter of all survivors may have some combination of PTSD and a diagnosable anxiety disorder (e.g., specific phobia or panic disorder).

Impact on Teenagers

In the study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, the Medical University of South Carolina researchers used information from a large-scale U.S. project called the National Survey of Adolescents to gauge the impact of motor vehicle accident exposure on teenagers’ risks for emotional trauma-related mental health issues. All told, the researchers relied on data gathered from 3,604 preteens and teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17. Just over 12 percent of these adolescents had a personal history of involvement in a motor vehicle crash. The researchers concluded that 7.4 percent of the crash-exposed teenagers developed diagnosable cases of PTSD. They also concluded that 11.2 percent of the crash-exposed teens developed diagnosable cases of depression. When all other factors were taken into consideration, adolescents under the age of 16 with a history of crash exposure had an increased likelihood of developing depression, as well as an increased likelihood of developing diagnosable alcohol abuse. With all other factors accounted for, 16- and 17-year-olds with a history of crash exposure had an increased likelihood of developing diagnosable alcohol abuse, but not depression. The study’s authors specifically focused their attention on motor vehicle crash-related mental health problems other than PTSD. They believe that they are the first researchers to give attention to these problems in teenagers who have survived a motor vehicle accident.

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