Veterans Psychologically Impacted by Boston Marathon Bombing

A new study by the Boston University School of Medicine shows that recent tragedies can affect people with preexisting conditions.

According to a new study by researchers at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs National Center for PTSD in Boston, many local military veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced flashbacks, unwanted memories, and other psychological effects as a result of the Boston Marathon bombing.

The results were published Friday in the Journal of Traumatic Stress. This study raises awareness that tragic events like terror attacks and mass shootings affect not only the direct victims, but also those with PTSD and other preexisting conditions.

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder defined by serious changes in cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and psychological functioning that can occur in response to a psychologically traumatic event. Previous studies have estimated that approximately eight percent of the U.S. population will develop PTSD in their lifetime. Among combat veterans, as many as one out of five suffer symptoms of the disorder.

Using data from an ongoing study of Boston area veterans diagnosed with PTSD, the researchers conducted 71 telephone interviews within one week of the bombing. Because the researchers already had symptom data from participants approximately two months before the bombing, they were able to compare those levels with results from the interview one week after the bombing.

“The effects felt by the veterans were likely due to thematic similarities between the Marathon explosions and the veterans’ own traumatic combat experiences, especially for those deployed to recent conflicts characterized by attacks involving improvised explosive devices,” says Mark Miller, associate professor at BUSM and a clinical research psychologist in the National Center for PTSD at the VA Boston. Miller was also the study’s lead investigator.

Of those interviewed, 38 percent reported that they were emotionally distressed by the bombing and the lockdown a week later. A majority of those participants said that the bombing caused them to experience flashbacks and the re-emergence of unwanted memories relating to their own past traumas.

The veterans that reported being affected cited a strong correlation between distress at the time of the bombing and a change in the severity of their PTSD symptoms. “This study highlights the fact that tragic local and national events of this type can have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of individuals already suffering with PTSD,” Miller says. “It is crucial that relevant healthcare organizations understand this phenomenon and be prepared in the wake of tragedy to care not only for those who are directly impacted, but also for those with preexisting psychological conditions, including our nation’s veterans with PTSD.”

The researchers are urging healthcare systems to be prepared in the future to treat individuals who were either directly or indirectly affected by such tragedies. The study was funded by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.