A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article and a recent American Psychiatric Association (APA) press release reveal the power the APA has wielded through its various DSM editions in pathologizing the effects of trauma.
What’s Wrong With the “PTSD” label?
Before I examine the problems with the article and press release, it is important that readers not assume that if “PTSD” (“Post-traumatic Stress Disorder”) is a harmful label, “PTS” (just removing the “D”) is fine. There is little difference, because “PTSD” is so widely used—even by people who rightly criticize the use of other psychiatric labels—that it will be generations before people stop thinking “Disorder” when they hear “PTS.” Instead of using either term, what is accurate and useful is to call the trauma what it is—war trauma, rape trauma, hurricane trauma, etc.—and to call trauma’s effects what they are, such as terror, grief, fragmentation, moral injury, loss of ability to trust, total exhaustion, etc.
As with any psychiatric label, its application subjects the labeled person to a vast array of kinds of harm, ranging from plummeting self-confidence to loss of child custody, employment, respect, all possible human rights, and even death.
Neither the WSJ article’s author, Andrea Petersen, nor the unknown author of the APA press release ever questions what “PTSD” means in the DSM, what people will assume it means, and whether there is any scientific validity to it at all.
As I found when on two DSM-IV committees, there is no scientific validity to it. Still worse, when it first went in a DSM edition as a description of (some) reactions to trauma, there was a sentence noting that these were normal responses to abnormal situations. That meant it was weird to include it in a manual of mental disorders, but the DSM authors have rarely worried about consistency in their rush to include as many labels as possible. But that sentence was useful for traumatized people to see, because sometimes it made them feel less like they were overreacting and “crazy.” However, even that little bit of help vanished when Allen Frances headed DSM-IV’s Task Force, for that sentence was removed.
Not only is “PTSD” not scientifically derived, but even caring therapists apply the diagnosis without ensuring that their patients even meet all the DSM’s required criteria, as researcher Meadow Linder wrote in a chapter in Bias in Psychiatric Diagnosis.
In a way, that is irrelevant, because what good does it do to stick scrupulously to arbitrarily chosen criteria? But this means that, as I have written elsewhere, “PTSD” now consists of shifting sands on shifting sands—an unscientific label, unscientifically and unsystematically applied.
When a Label Has No Validity, It’s Absurd to Study What Helps “It”…and Other Problems
The Wall Street Journal author starts by referring to the pandemic, wrongly assuming that it is creating skyrocketing rates of “PTSD”—rather than NONpathological suffering, and reviewing what she says therapists have described as “new” and needed treatments for the “disorder.” It is especially troubling that she mentions that the most common reports of “PTSD” during the covid-19 pandemic in a large study were about loneliness and worries about the virus. Does it make sense to call loneliness and worries about the virus signs of mental illness?
And she mentions another study, this one of frontline healthcare workers during the pandemic, in which 16.7% are said to have “PTSD.” Does it make sense to claim that it is a mental illness for people constantly exposed to a mysterious, dangerous, contagious illness to be traumatized? What is the point of all that, other than to alarm people and provide more money, power, and territory for therapists?
What the author mentions only briefly in her lengthy article is how helpful self-help groups for traumatized people can be. Instead, she writes endlessly about one drug after another after another and various forms of traditional talk therapy.
The author then zooms ahead, naming the psychiatric drugs (she calls them “medications”) Zoloft, Paxil, MDMA (called “Ecstasy” on the street), and ketamine, all of which have negative effects ranging from upsetting (e.g., sexual problems) to dangerous (e.g., increased violence against self or others). Acknowledging that only small percentages of people who take these drugs are helped, she asserts that “Scientists” (who?) are seeing (based on high-quality research…or not?) “early” (oops) “positive studies combining psychotherapy with certain drugs.” Even so, she does note that “About 40% of people who received the MDMA treatment reported side effects including anxiety, headaches and nausea.” She might also have cited this report of even more serious kinds of harm.
Petersen also reports that an unspecified “growing body of research shows that transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses a high-powered magnet placed on the scalp to stimulate neurons in certain parts of the brain, can ease PTSD symptoms.” To begin with, I know from direct experience with one of the top marketers of such devices that they often fail to warn of negative effects and fail to disclose that these devices cannot be targeted to particular neurons, so little is known about what effects they will have—good or bad—in any given individual.
Further food for thought is that leaders in the movement challenging the traditional mental health system have asked the rhetorical question, “Why should we assume that when these marketers say that their devices are safe because they send LESS current through people’s brains than traditional electroshock, we should believe them?”
Petersen asserts that the best psychotherapies for “PTSD” are cognitive processing and prolonged exposure therapy. In my decade of listening to military veterans, as well as to other traumatized people, I have learned that sometimes the former—examining one’s beliefs that cause them suffering—helps and sometimes not, because often the moral injury and powerful emotions caused by trauma and the painful isolation are never addressed. And I have learned from them that exposure therapy—going over and over the trauma—helps some people but is horribly retraumatizing for others, and it, too, does not in and of itself include working on the moral injury, the isolation, or the other strong emotions.
Toward the end of the article, Petersen does mention the potential effectiveness of aerobic exercise, though only combined with prolonged exposure.
In summarizing concerns about the WSJ article, it is important to note that it is always a good thing to allow people to try anything that has helped some people who are similarly suffering, but it is essential for those people to be told in advance and fully what the potential benefits and the known kinds of harm are.
APA Wants Exclusive Control Over Prescribing Drugs for Veterans with “PTSD”
In a September 24, 2020, news release, the APA’s headline came across as gloating: “Successful APA Advocacy Assures Veteran Patient Safety Regarding MH Care.” The piece was about the House of Representatives’ Veterans’ Affairs Committee removing a proposal from suicide prevention legislation that would have given psychologists the right to prescribe drugs to veterans. A major problem in the release is that they automatically assume that the veterans who killed themselves had “PTSD.”
Unsurprisingly, after a lengthy description of its lobby efforts about this matter, the release included this quotation:
“We will continue our work with the VA, Congress, and partner organizations to improve the mental health and substance use care available to our veterans through the VHA and beyond,” said APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A.
“We must work with policymakers on genuine solutions that promote the recruitment and retention of critically needed psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health providers who are in short supply within the VA system. Meanwhile, with the help of our members, we have avoided the enactment of a false solution that could have put many veterans at risk, without any improvement in access to the care they truly need.”
Note that Levin acknowledges that psychologists can help veterans but that allowing them to prescribe drugs would be “a false solution that could have put many veterans at risk,” as though psychiatrists prescribing drugs does not put veterans at risk. This is reprehensible in light of the well-established fact that so many psychiatric drugs increase rates of suicide. My own view is not that it is worse for psychologists than psychiatrists to prescribe these drugs but that the fewer people of any discipline who are prescribing them, the better.
What would be amusing if it were not so frightening is that Levin is also quoted as saying:
“We believe that nothing is more important than ensuring that veterans are given high quality mental and physical health care by qualified, appropriately educated, and trained medical clinicians, not more prescribers and more prescriptions….”
Nowhere in the news release is there mention of any attempts to prevent suicide except through psychiatric drugs, and all the gloating is about how impressively the APA prevented psychologists from doing this. Wouldn’t it have been great if he had:
- surprised everyone by saying that psychiatrists should be prescribing fewer such drugs;
- said that traumatized vets should be told they are having deeply human, understandable reactions to trauma instead of pathologizing them by saying they have “PTSD,” and pointed out that labeling people as “mentally ill” increases the chance they will be put on drugs;
- mentioned any of the many nonpathologizing approaches to helping traumatized people (such as the many at this website)?
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.