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Alcohol worsens PTSD symptoms in college students

The estimated 9 percent of college students who have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are likely to drink more alcohol than peers without the psychological condition. In turn, heavy alcohol consumption worsens their PTSD symptoms over time, prolonging a vicious cycle.

These are the conclusions of the first empirical study to examine the influences the two phenomena have on each other; influences that had been theorized but never tested.

“College is a time of important developmental changes and a period of risk for heavy drinking, trauma exposure and post-traumatic stress symptoms,” said Jennifer P. Read, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo and principle investigator on the study, published recently in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

“Heavy drinking is common on college campuses and related to risk for sexual assault, interpersonal violence and serious injury, any of which may trigger PTSD,” Read said in a news release.

The study examined the relationships between PTSD and heavy drinking in 486 students as they transitioned into college and at 11 additional points over the following three years.

“We show that alcohol use and associated problems are linked over time to an exacerbation in PTSD symptoms, and that PTSD symptoms show a similar effect on alcohol consumption,” Read said. “Each affects the other. As such, both PTSD and heavy drinking are risk factors for one another, each with implications for the other over the course of college.

“This information is useful and perhaps imperative for those who assist students dealing with these problems.”

Jeffery D. Wardell, UB doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, and Craig R. Colder, professor of clinical psychology, helped with the study.

Read’s research focuses on alcohol and other substance use in young adults. In a 2011 study of 3,000 college students, published in the journal Psychological Trauma, she found that about 9 percent met the criteria for PTSD, with the disorder found to be most common among those exposed to sexual and physical assault, most of whom were women.

A 2012 study by Read and colleagues found that the transition into college is marked by an escalation in heavy drinking, drug use and use-related negative consequences, and suggested interventions that may help to reduce problem substance use and ultimately help create a stronger transition into college and beyond.