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Why Are Adolescents the Forgotten Among the Brain Injured?

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Originally posted on May 7, 2014.

The Iran and Afghanistan Wars introduced a new and troubling picture on the relationship between traumatic brain injury and mental health. Multiple deployments exposed soldiers to more frequent risks. New combat gear helped them survive blasts. Suicide, substance use, and strained relationships often followed.

But according to an Ontario study, we shouldn’t forget another vulnerable group: adolescents who have experienced at least one traumatic brain injury, defined as a head injury that caused either 5 minutes of unconsciousness or an overnight hospital stay. By comparison, the severity of the soldier injuries probably trumped those of the Toronto teens. Yet the two groups experienced similar consequences.

In a study of almost 5000 Canadian students Grades 7-12, those who experienced a traumatic brain injury, compared those who didn’t, were nearly three times more likely to attempt suicide. The brain injured adolescents were also more likely to engage in antisocial behavior and experience anxiety and depression.

Here is the most stunning statistic of all: roughly 20% of Ontario adolescents have a lifetime history of traumatic brain injury. Part of this makes sense. Think back to when you were a teenager. Perhaps you skateboarded, played soccer, hockey, football, or roughhoused with your siblings. Learning how to drive, you might have been injured in a car accident.

Our teenage years are often filled with risk because the teenage brain is hypersensitive to reward. (To watch some videos of a true genius on the topic of the teenage brain, click here). Yet the drive for reward can come at the greatest cost of all. By risking their bodies, adolescents risk their brains. And when that piece of equipment doesn’t run on all cylinders, life becomes more of a slog than a sweet dream.

The next time you think of brain injury, think of those who put themselves in harm’s way. For some of us, risk if part of our job. For others, it’s part of our development. For all of us, it’s time to reconsider who needs help.     

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”