Multiple Traumatic Events: The South Africa Stress and Health Study

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Trauma is deeply rooted in South African society. South Africa has been considered one of the most violent countries and has been termed the “rape capital of the world” (Human Rights Watch, 1995). Prior studies evidence high levels of community violence, intimate partner violence, and rape. Research measuring morbidity/mortality has suggested a link between trauma and mental health problems. 34 However, national lifetime prevalence of multiple forms of trauma is not firmly established. Further, nationally-based studies on trauma in South African context have not examined multiple traumas simultaneously. Given the assumed burden of trauma in South Africa, it is important that research uncovers precise rates of traumas and links to mental health. Investigating individual and cumulative effects of trauma in a large, national sample can contribute to understanding the trauma burden. Thus, using nationally representative data from the South Africa Stress and Health Study, we examine lifetime prevalence of a variety of traumas and multiple traumas (number of events). Employing regression analysis, we study individual and cumulative effects of traumas on psychological distress. Results indicate most South Africans (approximately 75%) experience at least one traumatic event during their lives, with the majority reporting multiple. With few exceptions, exposure to traumatic events is associated with greater distress. Results further indicate a cumulative effect of trauma, evidenced by a graded relation between multiple traumas (1, 2, 3, 4-5, 6+) and distress. Those with the most traumas (6+) appear at five- times greater risk of high distress. This study provides a previously unavailable glimpse of exposure to a range of traumas in a nationally representative sample of adults in South Africa. Moreover, implicated by our findings of a cumulative effect of multiple traumas and that the majority experience such multiple traumas is a possible burden of mental health in South Africa.


Chicago, IL

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