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Despite the frequency that refugees suffer bereavement, there is a dearth of research into the prevalence and predictors of problematic grief reactions in refugees. To address this gap, this study reports a nationally representative population-based study of refugees to determine the prevalence of probable prolonged grief disorder (PGD) and its associated problems.
This study recruited participants from the Building a New Life in Australia (BNLA) prospective cohort study of refugees admitted to Australia between October 2013 and February 2014. The current data were collected in 2015–2016, and comprised 1767 adults, as well as 411 children of the adult respondents. Adult refugees were assessed for trauma history, post-migration difficulties, probable PGD, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mental illness. Children were administered the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire.
In this cohort, 38.1% of refugees reported bereavement, of whom 15.8% reported probable PGD; this represents 6.0% of the entire cohort. Probable PGD was associated with a greater likelihood of mental illness, probable PTSD, severe mental illness, currently unemployed and reported disability. Children of refugees with probable PGD reported more psychological difficulties than those whose parents did not have probable PGD. Probable PGD was also associated with the history of imprisonment, torture and separation from family. Only 56.3% of refugees with probable PGD had received psychological assistance.
Bereavement and probable PGD appear highly prevalent in refugees, and PGD seems to be associated with disability in the refugees and psychological problems in their children. The low rate of access to mental health assistance for these refugees highlights that there is a need to address this issue in refugee populations.
Prolonged separation from parental support is a risk factor for psychopathology. This study assessed the impact of brief separation from parents during childhood trauma on adult attachment tendencies and post-traumatic stress.
Children (n = 806) exposed to a major Australian bushfire disaster in 1983 and matched controls (n = 725) were assessed in the aftermath of the fires (mean age 7–8 years) via parent reports of trauma exposure and separation from parents during the fires. Participants (n = 500) were subsequently assessed 28 years after initial assessment on the Experiences in Close Relationships scale to assess attachment security, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was assessed using the PTSD checklist.
Being separated from parents was significantly related to having an avoidant attachment style as an adult (B = −3.69, s.e. = 1.48, β = −0.23, p = 0.013). Avoidant attachment was associated with re-experiencing (B = 0.03, s.e. = 0.01, β = 0.31, p = 0.045), avoidance (B = 0.03, s.e. = 0.01, β = 0.30, p = 0.001) and numbing (B = 0.03, s.e. = 0.01, β = 0.30, p < 0.001) symptoms. Anxious attachment was associated with re-experiencing (B = 0.03, s.e. = 0.01, β = 0.18, p = 0.001), numbing (B = 0.03, β = 0.30, s.e. = 0.01, p < 0.001) and arousal (B = 0.04, s.e. = 0.01, β = 0.43, p < 0.001) symptoms.
These findings demonstrate that brief separation from attachments during childhood trauma can have long-lasting effects on one's attachment security, and that this can be associated with adult post-traumatic psychopathology.
Although perceived social support is thought to be a strong predictor of psychological outcomes following trauma exposure, the temporal relationship between perceived positive and negative social support and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms has not been empirically established. This study investigated the temporal sequencing of perceived positive social support, perceived negative social support, and PTSD symptoms in the 6 years following trauma exposure among survivors of traumatic injury.
Participants were 1132 trauma survivors initially assessed upon admission to one of four Level 1 trauma hospitals in Australia after experiencing a traumatic injury. Participants were followed up at 3 months, 12 months, 24 months, and 6 years after the traumatic event.
Latent difference score analyses revealed that greater severity of PTSD symptoms predicted subsequent increases in perceived negative social support at each time-point. Greater severity of PTSD symptoms predicted subsequent decreases in perceived positive social support between 3 and 12 months. High levels of perceived positive or negative social support did not predict subsequent changes in PTSD symptoms at any time-point.
Results highlight the impact of PTSD symptoms on subsequent perceived social support, regardless of the type of support provided. The finding that perceived social support does not influence subsequent PTSD symptoms is novel, and indicates that the relationship between PTSD and perceived social support may be unidirectional.
Dissociative reactions in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been regarded as strategic responses that limit arousal. Neuroimaging studies suggest distinct prefrontal responses in individuals displaying dissociative and hyperarousal responses to threat in PTSD. Increased prefrontal activity may reflect enhanced regulation of limbic arousal networks in dissociation. If dissociation is a higher-order regulatory response to threat, there may be differential responses to conscious and automatic processing of threat stimuli. This study addresses this question by examining the impact of dissociation on fear processing at different levels of awareness.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with a 1.5-T scanner was used to examine activation to fearful (versus neutral) facial expressions during consciously attended and non-conscious (using backward masking) conditions in 23 individuals with PTSD. Activation in 11 individuals displaying non-dissociative reactions was compared to activation in 12 displaying dissociative reactions to consciously and non-consciously perceived fear stimuli.
Dissociative PTSD was associated with enhanced activation in the ventral prefrontal cortex for conscious fear, and in the bilateral amygdala, insula and left thalamus for non-conscious fear compared to non-dissociative PTSD. Comparatively reduced activation in the dissociative group was apparent in dorsomedial prefrontal regions for conscious fear faces.
These findings confirm our hypotheses of enhanced prefrontal activity to conscious fear and enhanced activity in limbic networks to non-conscious fear in dissociative PTSD. This supports the theory that dissociation is a regulatory strategy invoked to cope with extreme arousal in PTSD, but this strategy appears to function only during conscious processing of threat.
Although cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is the treatment of choice for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), approximately half of patients do not respond to CBT. No studies have investigated the capacity for neural responses during fear processing to predict treatment response in PTSD.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) responses of the brain were examined in individuals with PTSD (n=14). fMRI was examined in response to fearful and neutral facial expressions presented rapidly in a backwards masking paradigm adapted for a 1.5 T scanner. Patients then received eight sessions of CBT that comprised education, imaginal and in vivo exposure, and cognitive therapy. Treatment response was assessed 6 months after therapy completion.
Seven patients were treatment responders (defined as a reduction of 50% of pretreatment scores) and seven were non-responders. Poor improvement after treatment was associated with greater bilateral amygdala and ventral anterior cingulate activation in response to masked fearful faces.
Excessive fear responses in response to fear-eliciting stimuli may be a key factor in limiting responses to CBT for PTSD. This excessive amygdala response to fear may reflect difficulty in managing anxiety reactions elicited during CBT, and this factor may limit optimal response to therapy.