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Is it time to drop the diagnosis of PTSD?

Is it time to drop the diagnosis of PTSD?

CAUTION!  The material in this post was rejected by the “Proceedings of the Listening to Trauma Conference: Insights & Actions.” The reason: “Its tone is too contentious for a collection with positive studies of the physiological underpinnings for trauma and meaningful emerging clinical treatments.”  Proceed at your own risk.

In many respects post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been an extraordinarily fruitful diagnosis.  It connected the politics of the Vietnam War with the suffering of hundreds of thousands of veterans (Alford, pp 9-13).  As the authors of The Empire of Trauma, Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, put it, trauma today is not a clinical but a moral judgment. Its advantage is that it has given us “this unprecedented ability to talk about—and hence experience—the violence of the world.” (p 276)  In addition, trauma has given us a new perspective on contemporary history, up close and from the ground up.  History written from the perspective of trauma is history written from the perspective of the victims.

Reliability versus validity

And yet I think PTSD has come to an intellectual dead-end for all the reasons discussed in this blog over the last two years.  

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It’s time to stop letting the stressor define PTSD

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It’s time to stop letting the stressor define PTSD.  Not doing so makes the new categories of C-PTSD and DESNOS largely irrelevant.

I’ve been posting on this blog for about eighteen months now, a total of fifty-two posts.  Though I’ve written a couple of books on trauma (my latest is Trauma, Culture, and PTSD),  I still feel like a newcomer to the field.  In this post I want to talk about what still puzzles me about trauma theory.  The experience of writing this blog has led to more questions than answers.

I’ve been able to reconstruct to my own satisfaction the origins of PTSD in the Vietnam War  The new diagnostic category served political ends, pointing out what war does to the people who fight it.  The introduction of the disorder called PTSD was progressive politics.  It was also a humane diagnosis, helping to explain to those who suffered from it what was happening to them, giving both soldiers and their families a vocabulary for their pain. 

PTSD in DSM-5

At almost the same time as DSM-5 was being released, the National Institutes of Mental Health was refusing to fund any more research based on the DSM.

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) announcement
By Thomas Insel on April 29, 2013

Patients with mental disorders deserve better. . . . That is why NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories . . . . The weakness is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure.

If the DSM were the model for physical medicine, then a heart attack would be defined as “chest pain disorder,” a symptom without a cause.

Henceforth, the NIMH research goal is to fill in the “Draft Research Domain Criteria Matrix,” which links 5 basic natural formations, such as “systems for social processes,” including attachment and fear, with eight columns of units of analysis, such as genes, molecules, and cells.

The goal is to move from mind to brain, so that there will no longer be any need to talk about mind at all. It’s all about electricity and meat, as Gary Greenberg puts it.  And electricity and meat can be measured.  Not, however, in the language of human suffering. 

American psychiatry and psychology have been cut off from the official world of science, but not from VA funding (over 100 million dollars since 2012 for PTSD).   This has consequences.  One, I believe, is the failure of more trauma specialists to object to the VA’s endorsement of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), including exposure therapy, as the treatment of choice, the only “evidence based treatments.”

These treatments are short-term, can be learned from a manual, and administered by lesser trained persons.  CBT is quick and cheap compared to long term therapy by well trained persons.  But consider CBT’s difference not only from traditional talk therapy, but also from the rap groups that sprang up in the Vietnam War era, in which veterans could exchange experiences.  CBT discourages “cross talk,” as people talking with each other is called (Tasman et al., p. 1928).  The potential of PTSD to help sufferers explain to each other the varieties of torment and relief has been lost. 

This does not mean we should abandon the diagnosis of PTSD.  Indeed, when this is proposed it is often sufferers who object most strenuously, for the diagnosis has helped many people make sense of their disrupted lives.  It does mean that we should rethink the category. 

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What I learned about PTSD from the University of Google

childineyeThe Urban Dictionary says that the “University of Google” refers to a major ignoramus who pretends to be an intellectual. Well, I decided to attend the University of Google for a few days to see what I could learn about PTSD. It’s pretty depressing. So-called reputable sites were the worst. There are a couple of interesting exceptions.

I looked at every site listed on the first three pages of my Google search “PTSD.” This was over the days February 18-22, 2016. The top sites changed every day (sometimes every hour), but not by much, and I included sites that paid to be listed first. Since I’ve done a lot of trauma searches with Google on my computer, my rankings were not quite the same as on my wife’s computer, my i-pad, and my school computer, which I rarely use. Google customizes (that is, markets) its information. Nevertheless, the overlap was considerable.

After a while, the sites started to sound the same. There were a couple of exceptions.

Wiki disappoints

Wikipedia’s entry on PTSD was disappointing. “Psychotherapy is the ‘gold standard’ of treatment for PTSD.” A promising start, but under psychotherapy Wiki includes prolonged exposure therapy (PE), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). I expected more from Wiki; I’m not sure why.

Rats, mice, ecstasy, and dogs

A surprising number of sites reported on research with mice and rats, and several report the results of delivering electric shocks to people. In one, people with PTSD show heightened brain activity in areas thought to be associated with stress when shown pictures of frightened face when shocked and not shocked (that is, no difference), while people without PTSD show more anxiety when shocked. The significance of this is left unclear.

The same site, The Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, summarizes a study which shows that MDMA — also known as the rave drug Ecstasy — can treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in mice. At: https://bbrfoundation.org/ptsd?gclid=CIrI-YnshssCFclkhgodKkIKew. Don’t try this at home.

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The Book of Woe, and why NIMH said goodbye to DSM-5

IMG_1078This book review and comment are a little off my beat, for they are about DSM-5 in general, not just its diagnosis of trauma, which I addressed in my post of January 20, 2015, http://www.traumatheory.com/?p=86.

The full title of Gary Greenberg’s book is The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry. Greenberg is a psychologist and journalist. Some of the juiciest pieces of this book appeared in The New Yorker between 2010 and 2013 (Google Greenberg + DSM + New Yorker; they are all there).

The book begins with a story about Sandy, one of Greenberg’s patients. When Greenberg first saw him Sandy could barely go out of his house. By the end of therapy Sandy had a job, a girlfriend, and what most of us would call a life. Sandy and Greenberg exchanged emails after Sandy moved half way across the country from Connecticut. Eventually the emails stopped. A couple of years later Greenberg received a call from Sandy in the middle of the night. It ran something like this.

You’ve got to help me. They’ve sucked all the bones out of my body. I’m here in this hotel room and my bones are gone. My mother and my father and James. They’ve done this to me. And I don’t want to die. Please don’t let them kill me. You’re the only one who can help. Good-bye. Good-bye. (p. 9)

Greenberg tried to call Sandy back at the hotel he had called from, but there was no answer. He never heard from Sandy again.

The book turns on what to make of Sandy’s phone call.

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