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Murdoch M, Kehle-Forbes SM, Partin MR. Changes in affect after completing a mailed survey about trauma: two pre- and post-test studies in former disability applicants for posttraumatic stress disorder. BMC medical research methodology. 2017 May 10; 17(1):81.
BACKGROUND: One potential concern with using mailed surveys containing trauma-related content is the possibility of re-traumatizing survivors without a trained mental health professional present. Prior research provides insufficient guidance regarding the prevalence and magnitude of this risk because the psychological harms of trauma-related surveys have typically been estimated using single post-test observations. Post-test observations cannot quantify magnitude of change in participants'' emotional states and may over or under estimate associations between participants'' characteristics (risk factors) and post-survey upset. METHODS: We conducted two pre- and post-test studies in samples of former applicants for posttraumatic stress disorder disability benefits: 191 males who served during Gulf War I plus 639 male and 921 female Veterans who served sometime between 1955 and 1998. We used two 9-point items from the Self-Assessment Manikins to measure participants'' valence (sadness/happiness) and arousal (tenseness/calmness) before and after they completed mailed surveys asking about trauma-related symptoms or experiences. We examined the following potential predictors for post-survey sadness and tenseness: screening positive for posttraumatic stress disorder, having a serious mental illness, and history of military sexual assault or combat. RESULTS: After the survey, across the groups, 29.3-41.8% were sadder, 45.3-52.2% had no change in valence, and 12.9-22.5% were happier; 31.7-40.2% were tenser, 40.6-48.2% had no change in arousal, and 17.3-24.0% were calmer. The mean increase in sadness or tenseness post-survey was less than one point in all groups (SD''s? < 1.7). Cohen''s d ranged from 0.07 to 0.30. Most hypothesized predictors were associated with greater baseline sadness or tenseness, but not necessarily with larger post-survey changes. Women with a history of military sexual assault had the largest net post-survey changes in sadness (mean? = 0.7, SD? = 1.4) and tenseness (mean? = 0.6, SD? = 1.6). CONCLUSION: While a substantial minority of Veterans reported more sadness or tenseness post-survey, the net change in affect was small. Most hypothesized risk factors were actually associated with higher baseline sadness or tenseness scores. When receiving unsolicited, trauma-related surveys by mail, separate protections for Veterans with the risk factors studied here do not seem necessary.