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How PTSD Is Harming Women in Chicago

Research Highlights PTSD and Severe Depression in Underserved Neighborhoods

This article was originally published in the Northwestern Now news center. 

The violence that women in disadvantaged neighborhoods experience and witness can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and full diagnoses, according to a new Northwestern Medicine study that examined a disadvantaged Chicago neighborhood. The neighborhood from which women in the study were recruited ranked 7th for property crime, 26th for quality of life crime and 35th for violent crime among 77 Chicago neighborhoods. Every woman who was recruited had symptoms of depression.

Northwestern Medicine research showed that women with a PTSD diagnosis or sub-threshold PTSD – which refers to substantial trauma symptoms that might not meet the full PTSD diagnostic criteria – had significantly more severe depression symptoms than women in the study who did not report experiencing trauma.

“There are many women who are affected by shooting and gang violence in disadvantaged neighborhoods,” said Sunghyun Hong, a research assistant at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine who worked on the study. “These women are often overlooked. With this study, we were able to shine a light on the high prevalence of trauma exposure and PTSD diagnosis among an underserved population.”

This is one of very few studies to explicitly examine the impact that living in a disadvantaged neighborhood has on PTSD symptoms. The traumatic experiences reported in the study were often violent or sexual in nature. One woman disclosed having witnessed the fatal shooting of her son, and another woman reported watching her father be murdered in her home.

Thirty-six percent of women in the study had PTSD or sub-threshold PTSD. Those with PTSD had more severe depression symptoms than other women in the study who did not exhibit signs of PTSD, said principal investigator Inger Burnett-Zeigler, PhD, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Feinberg.

“Even if you don’t meet the full criteria for PTSD, you can have enough symptoms to impact your well-being,” Burnett-Zeigler said. “There is a substantial proportion of people who fall below the PTSD diagnosis line who might be getting lost in the cracks. It’s important for mental health providers to develop a greater awareness around this because untreated PTSD symptoms affect mental health, quality of life and functioning.”

A significant percentage of women in a general population who experienced trauma – 20 percent – develop PTSD, but in the study’s sample from an impoverished neighborhood, 71 percent of women who experienced trauma had PTSD symptoms.

“This wasn’t a sample we recruited based on having traumatic experiences, and yet so many women we recruited had experienced something traumatic,” Burnett-Zeigler said. “That is really significant in terms of how prevalent of an issue this is in that vulnerable population.”