By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — What’s in a name matters for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to proponents of changing what the condition is called, because the word “disorder” keeps some sufferers from getting the treatment they need.
The issue came to the forefront last month at the annual American Psychiatric Association meeting, where retired Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli made the case for the name change in a revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
The debate is “not about the definition of a disease,” Chiarelli said, but “is about taking away a barrier to care.”
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“I think it is a huge issue,” Chiarelli said in an APA video from the meeting. “I think it is an unquantifiable issue, one that we will never totally know the number, but I view the ‘D’ as a barrier to care for a certain portion of the population that does not want to be classified as having a disorder.”
A Call for Change
Chiarelli, who oversaw the Army’s battle to reduce the suicide rate among soldiers before he retired, originally made a request to drop the ‘D’ last year in an effort to get at the stigma issue.
Retired Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli
Military leaders have been concerned that stigma keeps servicemembers from getting the help they need and contributes to the high suicide rate among servicemembers and veterans. A report released late last year by the Center for New American Security (CNAS) stated that, from 2005 to 2010, troops took their own lives at a rate of approximately one every 36 hours and, although only 1% of Americans have served in the military, former military personnel represent 20% of suicides in the United States.
Two psychiatrists, Frank M. Ochberg, MD, and Jonathan Shay, MD, PhD, who wrote the APA in April backing a name change, said they believe using “injury” is a more-accurate term and that “the brain physiology has been injured by exposure to some external force.”
“It is not a weakness,” they wrote in a letter of support for the change to APA president John Oldham, MD. “It is really not, in its origin and manifestation, a disease. It came from something that happened, like a traumatic amputation. No military surgeon diagnoses a soldier or Marine whose foot has been taken off by a mine as suffering from ‘Missing Foot Disorder.’ To those who live with the impact, PTSD is an injury — and a painful one at that.”
Not everyone agrees. Mathew Friedman, MD, PHD, who serves as the executive director of the VA’s National Center for PTSD and who chairs the key APA committee that will make a recommendation on the issue for the revised DSM, publicly said that, in his view, there is no evidence for the need for a name change.
“I believe it would be a mistake to do so because, not only would nothing be accomplished by such a change in a diagnostic label, but because there would be unintended negative consequences,” he said.