Association between witnessing traumatic events and psychopathology in the South African Stress and Health Study

Document Type



Medical College (East Africa)


Background: The high burden of witnessing traumatic events has been demonstrated in previous research in South Africa. However, previous work has focused on PTSD rather than a broader range of psychopathological outcomes. This study examined the association between witnessing trauma and multiple outcomes including mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders.

Methods: Regression models measured the odds of mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders among those who reported witnessing in the South African Stress and Health Study. Discrete-time survival analysis was used to examine whether witnessing was associated with earlier onset of mental disorders.

Results: Witnessing trauma was more commonly reported among males and those with low-average education. Posttraumatic stress disorder, mood, and anxiety disorders varied significantly with witnessing status, and witnessing was associated with exposure to a higher number of traumatic events compared to other types of traumatic events. Respondents reporting witnessing trauma had elevated odds of mood and anxiety disorders, but not substance use disorders.

Conclusion: Witnessing trauma is common in the South African population and results in increased risk of mood and anxiety disorders. Interventions aimed at reducing the burden of trauma and its outcomes must now increase their focus on bystanders and other observers, rather than just focusing on those directly affected.


This work was published before the author joined Aga Khan University

Publication (Name of Journal)

Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology