Traumatic Stress and Motor Vehicle Accidents
COUNSELING AND REFERRAL SERVICES (ACRS)
Shery, clinical psychology
Three Oaks Rd. Ste 2A; Cary, IL 60013
Traumatic Stress and Motor Vehicle
A National Center for PTSD
By Todd Buckley, Ph.D.
Researchers are looking more closely at motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) as a common
cause of traumatic stress. In one large study, accidents were shown to be the traumatic event most frequently
experienced by males (25%) and the second most frequent traumatic event experienced by females (13%) in the United
States. Over 100 billion dollars are spent every year to take care of the damage caused by auto
Survivors of MVAs often also experience emotional distress as a result of such
accidents. Mental-health difficulties such as posttraumatic stress, depression, and anxiety are problems survivors
of severe MVAs may exhibit. This fact sheet addresses important issues related to MVAs, including how many people
experience serious MVAs, how many people develop MVA-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other
psychological reactions, what the risk factors are for MVA-related PTSD, and what kind of treatments help
How many people experience serious motor vehicle
One unfortunate consequence of the high volume of commuter and personal travel in
the U.S. is the number of accidents that result in personal injury and fatalities. In any given year, approximately
1% of the U.S. population will be injured in motor vehicle accidents. Thus, MVAs account for over 3 million
injuries annually and are one of the most common traumas individuals experience.
How many people develop MVA-related PTSD and other
Research on individuals seeking treatment and individuals in the general population
suggests that the majority of those who survive a serious MVA do not develop mental-health problems that warrant
professional treatment. However, a substantial minority of MVA survivors suffer from mental-health problems, the
most common of which are Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Major Depression, and Anxiety Disorders.
Studies of the general population have found that approximately 9% of MVA survivors
develop PTSD. Rates are significantly higher in samples of MVA survivors who seek mental-health treatment. Studies
show that between 14% and 100% of MVA survivors who seek mental-health treatment have PTSD, with an average of 60%
In addition, between 3% and 53% of MVA survivors who seek treatment and have PTSD
also have a mood disorder such as Major Depression. Finally, in one large study of MVA survivors who sought
treatment, 27% had an anxiety disorder in addition to their PTSD, and 15% reported a phobia of driving.
What are the risk factors for MVA-related
Recent research has identified variables that have predictive value when trying to
determine who might experience PTSD after a serious accident. The use of such research allows clinicians to
identify individuals at risk for long-term mental-health problems secondary to their accident.
The research focusing on identifying at risk individuals has been directed at three
sets of variables: characteristics about the individual that were present prior to the MVA, accident-related
variables, and postaccident variables.
- Pre-accident variables such as poor ability to cope
in reaction to previous traumatic events, the presence of a pre-accident mental-health problem (e.g.,
depression), and poor social support have all been linked to the development of PTSD following severe
- With respect to accident-related variables, the amount of
physical injury, potential life-threat, and loss of significant others have been predictive of the
development of mental-health problems such as PTSD. That is, as the amount of physical injury and fear of
dying increase, the chance of developing PTSD also increases.
- Post-accident variables that are predictive of PTSD
following MVAs are: the rate of physical recovery from injury, the level of social support from friends and
family, and the level of active reengagement in both work and social activities. To the extent that
physical limitations will allow, survivors of MVAs should be encouraged to maintain as much of their
pre-accident lifestyle as possible, with as much support from family and friends as possible. Such coping
strategies appear to be linked with positive mental-health outcomes.
What treatments are available for MVA-related
One aspect of MVA-related PTSD that is different from PTSD caused by other traumas
is the increased likelihood of being injured or developing a chronic pain condition following the trauma. As a
result, many people who have been in an MVA present first to their primary care physicians for treatment and do not
consider psychological treatment for some time. Unfortunately, studies have shown that of the people who develop
PTSD and do not seek psychological treatment, approximately half continue to have symptoms for more than six months
or a year. Therefore, it is important to identify the symptoms early on and seek appropriate psychological
Dr. Mike Shery is the director of
ACRS. He also is a licensed clinical psychologist. He has
practiced clinical psychology for approximately 24 years and is affiliated with almost all health plans, including:
ValueOptions, Medicare, Cigna, Cigna Behavioral Health, United Health Care, Aetna, First Health,
Healthstar, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, ComPsych, Magellan Health, HFN, Tricare, Humana,
most union local plans, most school district plans, Unicare, ChoiceCare, CAPP, Multiplan, Mental
Health Network, Managed Health Network, PHCS, PPONext, Humana Military-Tricare, United
Behavioral Health and Beech Street.
He is board certified as a specialist in professional counseling by the International Academy of Behavioral
Medicine, Counseling and Psychotherapy. He a member of the American Counseling Association.
The office is located in Cary, IL, near Crystal
Lake and Algonquin, northern Kane County and in southern McHenry County. In select cases, phone consultations are available for those who don’t live
To make an appointment>New Patient
Registration or to learn more about the
psychological services he provides call him at 1-847-275-8236 (24 Hrs).
To make an appointment,call 1-847-275-8236
or schedule yourself in our online appointment book now; Click: Make appointment for Cary Office: Therapy and
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