Some people who had traumatic experiences 30 to 40 years ago during ‘the Troubles’ are affected by mental health conditions as they grow older, new research revealed today.
A report by University of Ulster psychologists and the Omagh-based trauma treatment experts, entitled Ageing, Health and Conflict, said: "Along with the experience of specialist trauma services, the findings show that acute manifestation of symptoms for many mental health conditions often only appears many years later."
The study examined the experience and impact of ‘Troubles-related' trauma among individuals aged 45 and older. It is the latest in a series undertaken by a partnership of the Bamford Centre for Mental Health and Wellbeing, based at the Magee campus of the University of Ulster, and the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma & Transformation Trust.
The research shows that an individual who has experienced a 'conflict-related' traumatic event is three times more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and or alcohol abuse than someone who has not had a trauma.
Nearly 50% of those who had experienced a conflict-related trauma had shown evidence of at least one treatable mental health condition by the time of the research interview.
The report, which was undertaken with funding from The Atlantic Philanthropies, was launched in Belfast today.
As well as a strong association between traumatic events and mental health, the study found that specifically conflict-related traumatic events had a stronger effect across most mental health conditions.
People who experienced traumatic events, either conflict or non-conflict related, were more likely to have a range of chronic physical health problems such as arthritis/rheumatism, respiratory conditions and ulcers.
Where individuals had experienced traumatic events, many of them had gone to see health professionals in relation to emotional problems (67%).
Professor Brendan Bunting, Professor of Psychology at Magee, said: "These results indicate the potentially damaging role of traumatic events in the later development of different mental health conditions.
"Not all traumatic events are equal, some appear more devastating than others, and conflict related trauma appears to be among the more serious events. This link between trauma and mental health requires acknowledgment by both the sufferer and the therapist."
At the launch, Professor Bob Stout, of the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland (CARDI), praised the report's focus on the needs of older people, saying it laid the groundwork for improved services.
"There is a tendency to think that older people, with their experiences of various wars, along with our local recent years of conflict, are somehow resistant to traumatic events," he said. "In fact, we have not enquired sufficiently about their experiences and how they have been affected.
"This research shows that many have suffered years of distress and mental ill-health. In the absence of proper investigation of their needs, older people have coped by not talking about it or adopting other unhelpful means of managing their distress. This study provides for this community the basis for improving services for the older portion of our population."
Research undertaken earlier in the series of studies hinted at a high level of experience of Troubles-related trauma among the older population, with associated impact on mental and physical health.
Today's report drew on results of a national survey of more than 4,000 people, followed by the researchers' interviews with a sample 225 who had experienced conflict-related traumatic events.
Its key findings are:
* The ageing population has had a higher level of exposure to traumatic events that were characteristic of the period of major violence in the 1970s and 1980's.
* Having a lifetime traumatic experience is associated with having one or more lifetime mental health disorders. This trend is even more marked for those who have had traumatic experiences associated with conflict.
*Individuals who experienced a traumatic event (either conflict-related or non-conflict related) were more likely to have a range of chronic physical health conditions, highlighting the need for a joined-up approach to the assessment of health needs and provision of services for trauma-related health needs amongst older adults.
*Primary care services are the main point of contact for those who are seeking help with mental health concerns and who have had traumatic experiences. This provides an important entry point for people who suffer trauma-related needs so they can get access to services. The importance of primary care for trauma sufferers is very relevant to the future development of specialist trauma treatment services.
*The follow-up interviews with 225 participants in the Northern Ireland Study of Health & Stress, which included people who had experienced Troubles-related traumatic events, provide valuable evidence of experiences, needs and service requirements. These findings should inform policy and service development for those with on-going psychological and mental health disorders arising from their experiences of the conflict.
Notes to Editors :The title of the Report is: Ageing, Health and Conflict: An investigation of the experience and health impact of 'Troubles-related' trauma among older adults in Northern Ireland.
The research team was made up of a diverse group of researchers from a range of health related disciplines. Previous Reports by the research team have shown that Northern Ireland has the highest rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among comparable estimates from around the world and that conflict-related traumatic events have impacted adversely on the mental and physical health of the population.
The first phase of the study involved an analysis of data from an earlier study, The Northern Ireland Study of Health & Stress (NISHS), which is the largest epidemiological study of mental health in NI to assess the experience and mental health impact of psychological trauma among the adult population aged 45 and over.
The second phase involved the analysis follow-up interviews with a sample of individuals from the NISHS aged 45 and over who had experienced a conflict-related traumatic event. These interviews helped the research team to gain a detailed understanding of the direct impact of Troubles-related trauma. ENDS