Posts Tagged 'PTSD'

Publication: Review of posttraumatic cultural concepts of distress

Although not every human culture would recognize psychological terms as we use them in North America and Europe, every culture has ways of talking about how individuals feel, and every culture has terms that describe extreme and abnormal versions of these feelings. Cultural concepts of distress are those culturally-specific ways that people from within a given group express their psychological distress. For example, Cambodians talk about a khyal attack” as an experience whereby “wind” that flows naturally through the body (akin to chi in Chinese medicine) is blocked from exiting, causing problems that Western psychologists would call symptoms of panic attack (if you’re at all curious, you really should visit the website dedicated to explaining khyal attack).

A couple of colleagues and I recently published a review in Social Science and Medicine of the symptoms that are included in the various ways that different cultures think about the emotional distress following trauma. Our review included 55 studies and identified 116 different cultural concepts of distress. We categorized these concepts based on their symptoms (using hierarchical cluster analysis), and found that the 116 concepts could be described in four basic categories: (1) somatic dysphoria, which largely concerned bodily complaints; (2) behavioral disturbances, “odd” behavior (relative to cultural norms), (3) anxious dysphoria, which as its name implies included lots of anxiety; and (4) depression, which was surprisingly similar to depression as it appears in North American and European medicine. Notably, none of these groups of concepts looked like the psychological disorder that most mental health professionals in North America and Europe think of when they think about trauma — posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Of course there are all sorts of limitations to our review, and some would argue that the way we categorized cultural concepts of distress using symptoms alone misses the point of the diversity of these concepts globally (which is broader concerning explanations for distress than it is concerning symptoms). Others would argue that PTSD is actually somewhere in the mix of concepts we reviewed. I’d like to think our review is a starting point for discussion of these issues, rather than a definitive answer to any of these questions.

You can find a link to the publication in Social Science and Medicine here.

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Cognitive processing therapy for rape survivors in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Setting a new standard for post-conflict psychosocial care

Last week saw the publication of an important randomized control trial of cognitive processing therapy (CPT) for Congolese survivors of sexual assault in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM — and thanks, NEJM, for making the article available in full online). The fruit of intensive work by Judy Bass of Johns Hopkins, Jeannie Annan of the International Rescue Committee, Debra Kaysen of the University of Washington, and a host of others, this publication sets a new standard in the field of post-conflict mental health research and is welcome news for those affected by rape and other forms of sexual assault in low and middle-income (or, “LMIC”) war-affected settings.

The study involved almost 500 female survivors of rape in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an area of the world infamous for the absence of state control and an ongoing epidemic of sexual violence. Half were randomly assigned to a group-based version of CPT led by trained local counselors, half to generalized, patient-directed individual support and case management. Those attending CPT improved far more than those in the control group (although the latter also improved somewhat).

CPT has been shown to be effective for sexual assault survivors in several Northern, high-income countries, so that it was effective in the DRC may seem unsurprising. However, debates have raged in the past decade or so about the efficacy and effectiveness of doing psychotherapy in post-conflict settings that are not technically “post”-conflict and in populations with low-levels of education.

Prior research has suggested that short-term therapies may not be effective for populations exposed to ongoing trauma or multiple severe traumas. In our study, all villages reported at least one major security incident during the trial, including attacks, displacement due to fighting, and robbery by armed groups. In addition, there was concern that providing therapy to illiterate persons would be challenging. Our findings suggest that despite illiteracy and ongoing conflict, this evidence-based treatment can be appropriately implemented and effective.

This study shows that, with sufficient technical support, psychotherapy targeting trauma-related emotional problems can be delivered effectively in violence-affected LMICs as part of comprehensive psychosocial programs.

For a brief summary of the study and some commentary, see the related New York Times article from last Wednesday.

Sandy IDPs & some good mental health information for New York & New Jersey

If you have paid attention to any news from the Northeast U.S. in last couple weeks, you know that here in New York and across the river in New Jersey many people are hurting in the wake of the “superstorm” Sandy. According to the New York Times, there are an estimated 10,000-40,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in New York City alone. In response to the massive loss and devastation along the waterfront, there have been many heartwarming displays of care by neighbors, friends, and even complete strangers. And in contrast to the response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, local government and even the Feds seem to have their act together in providing supplies and now housing to those displaced.

IDP issues may, however, become a long-term issue. The sudden loss of material goods and social connections that people have based on where and how they live can have long-term consequences for social capital, employment opportunities, and even just knowing how to complete everyday tasks (e.g., where to get healthy food for your kids). The outpouring of support needs to be transformed into long-term engagement with IDPs, along the lines of the better psychosocial programs undertaken in more severe IDP crises (e.g., in Medellín, Colombia).

In the meantime, there has been a little attention to mental health. The best I have seen so far has been a post by “The 2×2 Project,” a blog written by Dr. Lloyd Sederer out of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. (A thank you to my wife, who forwarded me the link.) Here’s the intro, which sums up and corrects the myths that are often hears in immediate post-disaster environments:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, opinions—some reliable, some misleading— about the storm’s potential mental health impact have proliferated. When media channels act responsibly they engage experienced experts as spokespeople; when that does not happen, wrong information adds to the public’s anxiety and can foster inappropriate clinical interventions and waste resources.

In the latter category, perhaps the greatest myths I have heard are:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can appear in the immediate wake of a disaster.

Watching television can cause PTSD.

The highly common psychic distress in the wake of a disaster is a mental illness.

Here are some facts:

Psychic distress after a disaster, which can be highly prevalent and last up to a month, generally is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.

Read the rest of the post (and check out other informative posts) here.

Two press pieces on the science (and anti-science) of PTSD in the military

The past weekend saw two articles in the popular press concerning PTSD among U.S. soldiers that are worth a read. First, the Seattle Times reported that the Army’s new PTSD screening guidelines fault the established screening tests designed to root out PTSD fakers. Why would anyone fake PTSD? The Army pays an average of $1.5 million in disability benefits per soldier (over his/her lifetime) with PTSD. It is estimated that 22 percent of returning soldiers have PTSD. The difference between those who have it and those who may be faking is no small chunk of change.

In part because of pressure by Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) to investigate screening at the Madigan Army Medical Center (in Tacoma, Washington), the Army Surgeon General has issued new guidelines that criticize the use of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory — or, MMPI, as most psychologists know it. The MMPI is one of the most venerated of psychological screening questionnaires, holding up pretty well in over 60+ years of research (it has been revised several times, most recently in 2008). At issue in this case is the MMPI’s “lie scale,” which has been shown to detect malingerers of various stripes in multiple studies.

According the the Seattle Times, the Army’s new policy “specifically discounts tests used to determine whether soldiers are faking symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It says that poor test results do not constitute malingering.” Technically this is true; malingering scale scores on any normed test like the MMPI are associated with higher or lower probabilities of malingering, and not absolute certainty. Still, by throwing out the best tool they have to detect whether soldiers are malingering or not, what the Army really seems to be doing is trying to avoid appearing callous by relying on scientific methods.

Ironically, the same guidelines include empirically-based treatment improvements regarding medication:

The document found “no benefit” from the use of Xanax, Librium, Valium and other drugs known as benzodiazepines in the treatment of PTSD among combat veterans. Moreover, use of those drugs can cause harm, the Surgeon General’s Office said. The drugs may increase fear and anxiety responses in these patients. And, once prescribed, they “can be very difficult, if not impossible, to discontinue,” due to significant withdrawal symptoms compounded by PTSD, the document states.

Score one for research on meds, zero for research on screening questionnaires (or maybe: psychiatrists one, psychologists zero).

The second article of note wasn’t a report, but an editorial. Writing in the New York Times’ Sunday Review, Weill Cornell Psychiatrist Richard Friedman builds the case that one possible reason for the increase in cases of PTSD among returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq is an increase in stimulants prescribed to them on the battlefield. With the help of the Freedom of Information Act, Dr. Friedman found that military spending on stimulants increased 1,000 percent over five years.

Stimulants do much more than keep troops awake. They can also strengthen learning. By causing the direct release of norepinephrine — a close chemical relative of adrenaline — in the brain, stimulants facilitate memory formation. Not surprisingly, emotionally arousing experiences — both positive and negative — also cause a surge of norepinephrine, which helps to create vivid, long-lasting memories. That’s why we tend to remember events that stir our feelings and learn best when we are a little anxious.

Since PTSD is basically a pathological form of learning known as fear conditioning, stimulants could plausibly increase the risk of getting the disorder.

Dr. Friedman goes on to explain the neurochemistry behind the proposed interaction of stimulants and trauma, review new research showing ameliorative effects of beta-blockers, and (appropriately) call for more transparency and more research on the topic.

Doggy thoughts during wartime: Canine PTSD is (apparently) fit to print.

Back in May I was forwarded an online piece about a Dr. Burghardt and his theory about “canine PTSD” and noted that PTSD conceptual bracket creep had now progressed beyond primates. Now the New York Times sees fit to report on this new canine psychopathology:

Though veterinarians have long diagnosed behavioral problems in animals, the concept of canine PTSD is only about 18 months old, having come into vogue among military veterinarians who have been seeing patterns of troubling behavior among dogs exposed to explosions, gunfire and other combat-related violence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here’s how my canine-concerned colleagues conceptualize the disorder:

In each case, Dr. Burghardt theorizes, the dogs were using an object, vehicle or person as a “cue” for some violence they had witnessed. “If you want to put doggy thoughts into their heads,” he said, “the dog is thinking: when I see this kind of individual, things go boom, and I’m distressed.”

See? PTSD. Or maybe just good doggy thinking. Or maybe we’ve seen this before in animals and we want to give it some label that means more to us than what happens when the early behaviorists shocked rats to demonstrate conditioning. Stimulus – response. Cue – stimulus – response. Cue – response.

This is a perfect example of how previously recognized behavioral phenomena are relabeled by popular authorities as psychopathology based on recent cultural historical events. For a quick read on this phenomenon, see Ethan Waters’ Crazy Like Us. Read the New York Times piece on Canine PTSD here.

Article supplement: Posttraumatic idioms of distress among Darfur refugees

The September 2011 issue of Transcultural Psychiatry is out, and it includes an article by myself and some colleagues based on some work we did with Darfur refugees a few years ago. Publication lag times as they are (a colleague this morning compared them to the aging of fine wines), by the time an article is finally comes out in print the author’s ideas about what he/she sees as the “take-home” message may have shifted slightly. So here’s my chance to provide the 2011 take-home to a study written in 2009.

The article, Posttraumatic idioms of distress among Darfur refugees: Hozun and Majnun, details the development of a questionnaire (a structured interview, really) for Darfur refugees that we used to help evaluate a psychosocial intervention in camps in Chad. From the article:

We took an emic-etic integrated approach, identifying local constructs and then measuring both Western and local distress constructs within the same population in order to compare associations between two sets of symptoms of theoretically related concepts.

This means we (1) talked to a lot of refugees to hear how they defined their problems (including symptoms of psychological distress) and then followed-up with traditional healers to hear how they categorized these symptoms into larger psychological problems (“idioms of distress” for you budding transcultural psychiatrists out there); and (2) conducted a survey that included these problems and Western concepts (PTSD, depression) to measure how the Darfur problems and Western concepts were differentially associated with trauma experiences, loss, and impairment in daily living. The two Darfur problem sets were labeled hozun — “deep sadness” — and majnun — “madness.”

I’ll let you read the article to get the details, but suffice it to say that these sets of disorders — hozun and majnun on the one hand and PTSD and depression on the other — shared many symptoms in common. Related to this, they were associated with traumatic events and functional impairment at comparable levels — in other words, one could “predict” functional impairment using hozun and PTSD and get similar effect sizes (with slight favor for the locally-defined problems).

One might think that if a measure of PTSD is as good as measure developed for a local distress idiom in predicting a third variable you are interested in, then there is really no reason to develop the local measure. In the article we emphasized that the response to this argument had to do with respecting local populations and avoiding psychiatric colonialism. Now although I agree with those ideals, I would emphasize another point we made (but did not emphasize): Just because many of the symptoms of two different disorders from the Western psychiatric canon (here PTSD and depression) overlap with two different disorders from a different medical tradition (here hozun and majnun), it is how the symptoms are arranged in their respective traditions that define the disorders. From the article:

although they accounted for similar variance in Study 2 as a set of items, these symptoms were categorized by traditional healers into sets that were different that the sets of symptoms in PTSD and depression. This, then, suggests that it would be incorrect to argue that PTSD and depression are culturally valid constructs in settings in which respondents report variance on PTSD and depression simply because of that variance.

In other words, just because non-Western participants in a study answer that they have problems (or do not have problems) that fit into Western DSM-IV ideas of psychiatric disorder does not mean that Western DSM-IV ideas of psychiatric disorders are valid definitions of their problems. Figuring out what are valid definitions for their problems is not, at its most basic, a statistical task, but rather a theoretical one. You have to talk to the people who know the theory, not just the people who have the problems.



							

“Canine PTSD” or “Army dogs suffer from Pavlovian conditioning”

McGill University’s Summer Program in Social and Cultural Psychiatry presents wonderful opportunities to share ideas with those who think a lot about culture and mental health, culture in mental health, and, perhaps most interesting, the culture of mental health. Allan Young, whose historical ethnography of posttraumatic stress disorder, The Harmony of Illusions, is a must-read for anyone interested in trauma studies, passed along the following example of PTSD’s exaggerated role in current US culture, from the Army Times:

Dogs bring home war’s stress, too

By Michelle Tan – Staff writer
Posted : Thursday Dec 30, 2010 9:41:04 EST

SAN ANTONIO — Dogs suffer from post-traumatic stress, too.

Years of war and frequent deployments have affected military working dogs just as they have humans, and Dr. Walter Burghardt is trying to do something about it.

Dr. Burghardt explains:

“The dogs that go overseas … we’re starting to see some distress-related issues,” he said. “It results in difficulty doing work. They’re distracted by loud noises. We’re not saying it’s the same as in people, but there are common things.”

That includes hypervigilance or showing interest in escaping or avoiding places in which they used to be comfortable. For example, a dog that used to work at a security checkpoint or gate may try to pull away on his leash when he sees he’s being led to that checkpoint or gate, Burghardt said.

Some of the dogs also become very clingy or more irritable or aggressive, the doctor said.

“Canine PTSD” is either the most extreme example of what Richard McNally calls PTSD’s “bracket creep” or some perhaps nonintentional Pavloivan insight into the nature of stress response. Or perhaps both. If we take the “symptoms” reported in the article as accurate, and I have no reason to doubt the staff writers at the Army Times, then yes, dogs get stressed and want to avoid the sources of their stressors — classical conditioning, a la Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936; Pavlov even demonstrated conditioning using dogs, until they drowned in their cages when the River Neva flooded the basement of his laboratory). But canine posttraumatic stress disorder?

In case you were concerned that the Army veterinarians were not being careful about differential diagnosis, or perhaps even that some dogs might be faking in order to cash in on the generous disability benefits for veterans with PTSD:

[Dr. Burghardt] cautioned, “canine [post-traumatic stress disorder] is only diagnosed if the dog has combat exposure or repeated, prolonged deployments.”

The article continues with a description of the treatment given the dogs to get them right back “in the service”… which is, of course, the goal of treating human PTSD in the military as well.


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