Inside CAS

College of Arts and Sciences


Researchers unite to reduce stress of veterans with PTSD

Friday, May 13, 2016


Article and Photo by Katie Merritt '16

The homecoming of a soldier should be an exciting experience; a breath of relief for loved ones waiting eagerly at home. But what happens when what should be a joyous reunion is interrupted by the reality of war? Post-traumatic stress disorder shakes the expected reentry into one of fear and anxiety.  According to United States Veteran Services, approximately 12% of US Iraqi veterans experienced PTSD. Each of those diagnosed must go through six to eight hours of testing immediately once returning to America, a long, grueling burden that senior statistics major Danielle Gaal and psychology graduate student Angela Sekely are trying to ease.

The students are a part of the Interdisciplinary Data Excellency & Analytics Lab (IDEA Lab), which is partnership between the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and the Department of Psychology. This interdisciplinary union has spanned three years. Dr. Antonio Puente, a psychology professor, recognized that the extensive length of PTSD diagnosis tests was detracting from the validity of the results. Patients became tired, focus was lost and the tests began to slowly lose accuracy. By analyzing PTSD test data from Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., both departments work to significantly shorten the length of the test battery, improve precision and get soldiers back to their families as quickly as possible. 

Sekely began the research project at its early stages and now is turning the project into her master’s thesis.  “It took fifteen months to collect the data, code it and clean it out. We were paired with the Department of Mathematics and Statistics because there was just so much data. With the partnership, we can better analyze the data and make progress more efficiently,” said Sekely.

Once the data was obtained and sifted through, the simplified results were put into an Excel file that allowed psychology students to better examine weak and inaccurate pieces of the tests and the statistics students to run analyses to discover effective changes to the existing PTSD diagnosis system. The partnership is working to reduce the number of questions in the overall testing battery, but keep the validity of the test in tact.

“Psychology comes at the beginning and end of the relationship with statistics and our project. We set the goals and what we want to do. Statistics uses their advanced techniques and theories to shed the excess questions. Psychology then comes along again to evaluate the results,” Sekely continued.  So far, this process has taken more than 1,000 hours of lab time. 

Currently, Sekely and Gaal are working on one of thirteen tests of the PTSD battery called the Trauma Symptom Inventory, a 100-question test that determines severity of symptoms like depression, anxiety and sexual deviance.  Gaal reaches outside of classroom material to apply a statistical model called Item Response Theory (IRT) that is not taught to undergraduate students.  This theory works to group questions in common categories to better understand and manipulate data. Gaal says, “I’ve spent hours reading scholarly articles and determining what statistical analyses will work best with this specific data set.  I’ve had to teach myself an entirely new model and apply it to a real-world issue. The value of my major came to life.”  Gaal studies the IRT model as her Honors Thesis Project alongside statistics professor Dr. Wang.

To maintain unity, students of each major meet weekly to present new findings and progress. Both students agreed these meetings are pivotal to the project’s success. “The statistics students will present new graphs and findings and the psychology students would interpret the significance of the findings, “ Gaal reported. Though both students are completing their degrees this May, they are confident the project will continue into coming years.

Eventually the IDEA Lab seeks to not only improve validity of the tests, but to also use their research to suggest better means of test distribution. Currently the PTSD batteries are given via paper in a one-on-one setting with a veteran and a psychologist. The IDEA Lab hopes to shorten the test enough to distribute it electronically to veterans, maybe even before they return home to the States. 

“A computerized battery would shorten the test time and could be given to soldiers while they are still overseas, that way the re-entry process back into America is a little easier,” said Sekely. 

Not only has this project changed the trajectory for future PTSD testing, the extensive research and applied learning has provided the experience necessary for the two students to flourish in their fields of study. Danielle Gaal will continue her passion for statistics by pursuing a career in the banking industry. Sekely plans to enroll at the University of Toronto Scarborough to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology while researching traumatic brain injuries.