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Iraq War Clinician Guide
IV. Treatment of the Returning Iraq War Veteran
Josef I. Ruzek, Ph.D., Erika Curran, M.S.W., Matthew J. Friedman, M.D., Ph.D., Fred D. Gusman, M.S.W., Steven M. Southwick, M.D., Pamela Swales, Ph.D., Robyn D. Walser, Ph.D., Patrician J. Watson, Ph.D., and In this section of the Iraq War Clinician Guide, we discuss treatment of veterans recently evacuateddue to combat or war stress who are brought to the VA for mental health care, and Iraq Warveterans seeking mental health care at VA medical centers and Vet Centers. This sectioncomplements discussion of special topics (e.g., treatment of medical casualties, identification andmanagement of PTSD in the primary care setting, issues in caring for veterans who have beensexually assaulted, traumatic bereavement) that are addressed in other sections of this Guide.
It is important that VA and Vet Center clinicians recognize that the skills and experience that theyhave developed in working with veterans with chronic PTSD will serve them well with thosereturning from the Iraq War. Their experience in talking about trauma, educating patients andfamilies about traumatic stress reactions, teaching skills of anxiety and anger management,facilitating mutual support among groups of veterans, and working with trauma-related guilt, willall be useful and applicable. Here, we highlight some challenges for clinicians, discuss ways inwhich care of these veterans may differ from our usual contexts of care, and direct attention toparticular methods and materials that may be relevant to the care of the veteran recentlytraumatized in war.
The Helping Context: Active Duty vs. Veterans Seeking Health Care
There are a variety of differences between the contexts of care for active duty military personneland veterans normally being served in VA that may affect the way practitioners go about theirbusiness. First, many Iraq War patients will not be seeking mental health treatment. Some willhave been evacuated for mental health or medical reasons and brought to VA, perhaps reluctant toacknowledge their emotional distress and almost certainly reluctant to consider themselves ashaving a mental health disorder (e.g., PTSD). Second, emphasis on diagnosis as an organizingprinciple of mental health care is common in VA. Patients are given DSM-IV diagnoses, anddiagnoses drive treatment. This approach may be contrasted with that of frontline psychiatry, inwhich pathologization of combat stress reactions is strenuously avoided. The strong assumption isthat most soldiers will recover, and that their responses represent a severe reaction to the traumaticstress of war rather than a mental illness or disorder. According to this thinking, the “labeling”process may be counterproductive in the context of early care for Iraq War veterans. As Koshes(1996) noted, “labeling a person with an illness can reinforce the “sick” role and delay or preventthe soldier’s return to the unit or to a useful role in military or civilian life” (p. 401).
Patients themselves may have a number of incentives to minimize their distress: to hastendischarge, to accelerate a return to the family, to avoid compromising their military career orretirement. Fears about possible impact on career prospects are based in reality; indeed, some willbe judged medically unfit to return to duty. Veterans may be concerned that a diagnosis of PTSD,or even Acute Stress Disorder, in their medical record may harm their chances of futurepromotion, lead to a decision to not be retained, or affect type of discharge received. Some maythink that the information obtained if they receive mental health treatment will be shared withtheir unit commanders, as is sometimes the case in the military.
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To avoid legitimate concerns about possible pathologization of common traumatic stress reactions,clinicians may wish to consider avoiding, where possible, the assignment of diagnostic labels suchas ASD or PTSD, and instead focus on assessing and documenting symptoms and behaviors.
Diagnoses of acute or adjustment disorders may apply if symptoms warrant labeling. Concernsabout confidentiality must be acknowledged and steps taken to create the conditions in whichpatients will feel able to talk openly about their experiences, which may include difficulties withcommanders, misgivings about military operations or policies, or possible moral concerns abouthaving participated in the war. It will be helpful for clinicians to know who will be privy toinformation obtained in an assessment. The role of the assessment and who will have access towhat information should be discussed with concerned patients.
Active duty service members may have the option to remain on active duty or to return to the warzone. Some evidence suggests that returning to work with one’s cohort group during wartime canfacilitate improvement of symptoms. Although their wishes may or may not be granted, servicemembers often have strong feelings about wanting or not wanting to return to war. For recentlyactivated National Guard and Reservists, issues may be somewhat different (Dunning, 1996).
Many in this population never planned to go to war and so may be faced with obstacles to pickingup the life they “left.” Whether active duty, National Guard, or Reservist, listening to andacknowledging their concerns will help empower them and inform treatment planning.
Iraq War patients entering residential mental health care will have come to the VA through aprocess different from that experienced by “traditional” patients. If they have been evacuated fromthe war zone, they will have been rapidly moved through several levels of medical triage andtreatment, and treated by a variety of health care providers (Scurfield & Tice, 1991). Many willhave received some mental health care in the war zone (e.g., stress debriefing) that will have beenjudged unsuccessful. Some veterans will perceive their need for continuing care as a sign ofpersonal failure. Understanding their path to the VA will help the building of a relationship and thedesign of care.
More generally, the returning soldier is in a state of transition from war zone to home, andclinicians must seek to understand the expectations and consequences of returning home for theveteran. Is the veteran returning to an established place in society, to an economically deprivedcommunity, to a supportive spouse or cohesive military unit, to a large impersonal city, tounemployment, to financial stress, to an American public thankful for his or her sacrifice?Whatever the circumstances, things are unlikely to be as they were: The deployment of the family member creates a painful void within the family system that iseventually filled (or denied) so that life can go on…The family assumes that theirexperiences at home and the soldier’s activities on the battlefield will be easily assimilatedby each other at the time of reunion and that the pre-war roles will be resumed. The fact thatnew roles and responsibilities may not be given up quickly upon homecoming is notanticipated (Yerkes & Holloway, 1996, p. 31).
Learning from Vietnam Veterans with Chronic PTSD
From the perspective of work with Vietnam veterans whose lives have been greatly disrupted bytheir disorder, the chance to work with combat veterans soon after their war experiencesrepresents a real opportunity to prevent the development of a disastrous life course. We have the DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
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opportunity to directly focus on traumatic stress reactions and PTSD symptom reduction (e.g., byhelping veterans process their traumatic experiences, by prescribing medications) and therebyreduce the degree to which PTSD, depression, alcohol/substance misuse, or other psychologicalproblems interfere with quality of life. We also have the opportunity to intervene directly in keyareas of life functioning, to reduce the harm associated with continuing post-traumatic stresssymptoms and depression if those prove resistant to treatment. The latter may possibly beaccomplished via interventions focused on actively supporting family functioning in order tominimize family problems, reducing social alienation and isolation, supporting workplacefunctioning, and preventing use of alcohol and drugs as self-medication (a different focus thanaddressing chronic alcohol or drug problems).
Prevent family breakdown. At time of return to civilian life, soldiers can face a variety of
challenges in re-entering their families, and the contrast between the fantasies and realities of
homecoming (Yerkes & Holloway, 1996) can be distressing. Families themselves have been
stressed and experienced problems as a result of the deployment (Norwood, Fullerton, & Hagen,
1996; Jensen & Shaw, 1996). Partners have made role adjustments while the soldier was away,
and these need to be renegotiated, especially given the possible irritability and tension of the
veteran (Kirkland, 1995). The possibility exists that mental health providers can reduce long term
family problems by helping veterans and their families anticipate and prepare for family
challenges, involving families in treatment, providing skills training for patients (and where
possible, their families) in family-relevant skills (e.g., communication, anger management, conflict
resolution, parenting), providing short-term support for family members, and linking families
together for mutual support.
Prevent social withdrawal and isolation. PTSD also interferes with social functioning. Here the
challenge is to help the veteran avoid withdrawal from others by supporting re-entry into existing
relationships with friends, work colleagues, and relatives, or where appropriate, assisting in
development of new social relationships. The latter may be especially relevant with individuals
who leave military service and transition back into civilian life. Social functioning should be
routinely discussed with patients and made a target for intervention. Skills training focusing on the
concrete management of specific difficult social situations may be very helpful. Also, as indicated
below, clinicians should try to connect veterans with other veterans in order to facilitate the
development of social networks.
Prevent problems with employment. Associated with chronic combat-related PTSD have been
high rates of job turnover and general difficulty in maintaining employment, often attributed by
veterans themselves to anger and irritability, difficulties with authority, PTSD symptoms, and
substance abuse. Steady employment, however, is likely to be one predictor of better long term
functioning, as it can reduce financial stresses, provide a source of meaningful activity and self-
esteem, and give opportunities for companionship and friendship. In some cases, clinicians can
provide valuable help by supporting the military or civilian work functioning of veterans, by
teaching skills of maintaining or, in the case of those leaving the military, finding of employment,
or facilitating job-related support groups.
Prevent alcohol and drug abuse. The comorbidity of PTSD with alcohol and drug problems in
veterans is well established (Ruzek, 2003). Substance abuse adds to the problems caused by PTSD
and interferes with key roles and relationships, impairs coping, and impairs entry into and ongoing
participation in treatment. PTSD providers are aware of the need to routinely screen and assess for
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alcohol and drug use, and are knowledgeable about alcohol and drug (especially 12-Step)treatment. Many are learning, as well, about the potential usefulness of integrated PTSD-substanceabuse treatment, and the availability of manualized treatments for this dual disorder. “SeekingSafety,” a structured group protocol for trauma-relevant coping skills training (Najavits, 2002), isseeing increased use in VA and should be considered as a treatment option for Iraq War veteranswho have substance use disorders along with problematic traumatic stress responses. In addition,for many newly returning Iraq War veterans, it will be important to supplement traditionalabstine(wharimenzed treatments withatotention tomilrdet alcohol problest, and inparatiulWarto,)Tj0 -1.2222 TDainntithe revtentvef intrvtentiosn toereuncedrinekin for revten accrelgration of alcohol conumoptiolas a responsn to PTS symopomsg Bime, Mwiler, & Tonigae, 1993). Fforl DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
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Attend to broad needs of the person. Wolfe, Keane, and Young (1996) put forward several
suggestions for clinicians serving Persian Gulf War veterans that are also important in the context
of the Iraq War. They recommended attention to the broad range of traumatic experience (e.g., as
discussed in Chapter III). They similarly recommended broad clinical attention to the impact of
both pre-military and post-military stressors on adjustment. For example, history of trauma places
those exposed to trauma in the war zone at risk for development of PTSD, and in some cases war
experiences will activate emotions experienced during earlier events. Finally, recognition and
referral for assessment of the broad range of physical health concerns and complaints that may be
reported by returning veterans is important. Mental health providers must remember that increased
health symptom reporting is unlikely to be exclusively psychogenic in origin (Proctor et al., 1998).
Methods of Care: Overview
Management of acute stress reactions and problems faced by recently returned veterans arehighlighted below. Methods of care for the Iraq War veteran with PTSD will be similar to thoseprovided to veterans with chronic PTSD.
Education about post-traumatic stress reactions. Education is a key component of care for the
veteran returning from war experience and is intended to improve understanding and recognition
of symptoms, reduce fear and shame about symptoms, and, generally, “normalize” his or her
experience. It should also provide the veteran with a clear understanding of how recovery is
thought to take place, what will happen in treatment, and, as appropriate, the role of medication.
With such understanding, stress reactions may seem more predictable and fears about long-term
effects can be reduced. Education in the context of relatively recent traumatization (weeks or
months) should include the conception that many symptoms are the result of psychobiological
reactions to extreme stress and that, with time, these reactions, in most cases, will diminish.
Reactions should be interpreted as responses to overwhelming stress rather than as personal
weakness or inadequacy. In fact, some recent research (e.g., Steil & Ehlers, 2000) suggests that
survivors’ own responses to their stress symptoms will in part determine the degree of distress
associated with those symptoms and whether they will remit. Whether, for example, post-trauma
intrusions cause distress may depend in part on their meaning for the person (e.g., “I’m going
Training in coping skills. Returning veterans experiencing recurrent intrusive thoughts and images,
anxiety and panic in response to trauma cues, and feelings of guilt or intense anger are likely to
feel relatively powerless to control their emotions and thoughts. This helpless feeling is in itself a
trauma reminder. Because loss of control is so central to trauma and its attendant emotions,
interventions that restore self-efficacy are especially useful.
Coping skills training is a core element in the repertoire of many VA and Vet Center mental healthproviders. Some skills that may be effective in treating Iraq War veterans include: anxietymanagement (breathing retraining and relaxation), emotional “grounding,” anger management,and communication. However, the days, weeks, and months following return home may posespecific situational challenges; therefore, a careful assessment of the veteran’s current experiencemust guide selection of skills. For example, training in communication skills might focus on theproblem experienced by a veteran in expressing positive feelings towards a partner (oftenassociated with emotional numbing); anger management could help the veteran better respond toothers in the immediate environment who do not support the war.
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Whereas education helps survivors understand their experience and know what to do about it,coping skills training should focus on helping them know how to do the things that will supportrecovery. It relies on a cycle of instruction that includes education, demonstration, rehearsal withfeedback and coaching, and repeated practice. It includes regular between-session taskassignments with diary self-monitoring and real-world practice of skills. It is this repeated practiceand real world experience that begins to empower the veteran to better manage his or herchallenges (see Najavits, 2002, for a useful manual of trauma-related coping skills).
Exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is among the best-supported treatments for PTSD (Foa et al.,
2000). It is designed to help veterans effectively confront their trauma-related emotions and painful
memories, and can be distinguished from simple discussion of traumatic experience in that it
emphasizes repeated verbalization of traumatic memories (see Foa & Rothbaum, 1998, for a
detailed exposition of the treatment). Patients are exposed to their own individualized fear stimuli
repetitively, until fear responses are consistently diminished. Often, in-session exposure is
supplemented by therapist-assigned and monitored self-exposure to the memories or situations
associated with traumatization. In most treatment settings, exposure is delivered as part of a more
comprehensive “package” treatment; it is usually combined with traumatic stress education,
coping skills training, and, especially, cognitive restructuring (see below). Exposure therapy can
help correct faulty perceptions of danger, improve perceived self-control of memories and
accompanying negative emotions, and strengthen adaptive coping responses under conditions of
Cognitive restructuring. Cognitive therapy or restructuring, one of the best-validated PTSD
treatments (Foa et al., 2000), is designed to help the patient review and challenge distressing
trauma-related beliefs. It focuses on educating participants about the relationships between
thoughts and emotions, exploring common negative thoughts held by trauma survivors, identifying
personal negative beliefs, developing alternative interpretations or judgments, and practicing new
thinking. This is a systematic approach that goes well beyond simple discussion of beliefs to
include individual assessment, self-monitoring of thoughts, homework assignments, and real-world
practice. In particular, it may be a most helpful approach to a range of emotions other than fear –
guilt, shame, anger, depression – that may trouble veterans. For example, anger may be fueled by
negative beliefs (e.g., about perceived lack of preparation or training for war experiences, about
harm done to their civilian career, about perceived lack of support from civilians). Cognitive
therapy may also be helpful in helping veterans cope with distressing changed perceptions of
personal identity that may be associated with participation in war or loss of wartime identity upon
return (Yerkes & Holloway, 1996).
A useful resource is the Cognitive Processing Therapy manual developed by Resick and Schnicke(1993), which incorporates extensive cognitive restructuring and limited exposure. Althoughdesigned for application to rape-related PTSD, the methods can be easily adapted for use withveterans. Kubany’s (1998) work on trauma-related guilt may be helpful in addressing veterans’concerns about harming or causing death to civilians.
Family counseling. Mental health professionals within VA and Vet Centers have a long tradition of
working with family members of veterans with PTSD. This same work, including family education,
weekend family workshops, couples counseling, family therapy, parenting classes, or training in
conflict resolution, will be very important with Iraq War veterans. Some issues in family work are
discussed in more detail below.
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Early Interventions for ASD or PTSD
If Iraq War veterans arrive at VA Medical Centers very soon (i.e., within several days or severalweeks) following their trauma exposure, it is possible to use an early intervention to try to preventdevelopment of PTSD. Although cognitive-behavioral early interventions have only beendeveloped recently and have not yet been tried with war-related ASD, they should be consideredas a treatment option for some returning veterans, given their impact with other traumas andconsistency with what is known about treatment of more chronic PTSD. In civilian populations,several randomized controlled trials have demonstrated that brief (i.e., 4-5 session) individually-administered cognitive-behavioral treatment, delivered around two weeks after a trauma, canprevent PTSD in some survivors of motor vehicle accidents, industrial accidents, and assault(Bryant et al., 1998, 1999) who meet criteria for ASD.
This treatment is comprised of education, breathing training/relaxation, imaginal and in vivoexposure, and cognitive restructuring. The exposure and cognitive restructuring elements of thetreatment are thought to be most helpful. A recent unpublished trial conducted by the same teamcompared cognitive therapy and exposure in early treatment of those with ASD, with resultsindicating that both treatments were effective with fewer patients dropping out of cognitivetherapy. Bryant and Harvey (2000) noted that prolonged exposure is not appropriate for everyone(e.g., those experiencing acute bereavement, extreme anxiety, severe depression, thoseexperiencing marked ongoing stressors or at-risk for suicide). Cognitive restructuring may havewider applicability in that it may be expected to produce less distress than exposure.
Toxic Exposure, Physical Health Concerns, and Mental Health
War syndromes have involved fundamental, unanswered questions about chronic somaticsymptoms in armed conflicts since the U.S. civil war (Hyams et al., 1996). In recent history,unexplained symptoms have been reported by Dutch peacekeepers in Lebanon, Bosnia, andCambodia, Russian soldiers in Afghanistan and Chechnya, Canadian peacekeepers in Croatia,soldiers in the Balkan war, individuals exposed to the El Al airliner crash, individuals given theanthrax vaccine, individuals exposed to the World Trade Center following 9/11, and soldiers in theGulf War. Seventeen percent of Gulf War veterans believe they have “Gulf War Syndrome”(Chalder et al., 2001).
Besides PTSD, modern veterans may experience a range of “amorphous stress outcomes” (Engel,2001). Factors contributing to these more amorphous syndromes include suspected toxicexposures, and ongoing chronic exhaustion and uncertainty. Belief in exposure to toxiccontaminants has a strong effect on symptoms. Added to this, mistrust of military and industry,intense and contradictory media focus, confusing scientific debates, and stigma andmedicalization can contribute to increased anxiety and symptoms.
When working with a recent veteran, the clinician needs to address a full range of potentiallydisabling factors: harmful illness beliefs, weight and conditioning, diagnostic labeling, unnecessarytesting, misinformation, over-medication, all or nothing rehabilitation approaches, medical systemrejection, social support, and workplace competition. The provider needs to be familiar with sideeffects of suspected toxins so that he or she can educate the veteran, as well as being familiar withthe potential somatic symptoms that are related to prolonged exposure to combat stressors, and theside effects of common medications. The provider should take a collaborative approach with the DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
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patient, identifying the full range of contributing problems, patient goals and motivation, socialsupport, and self-management strategies. A sustained follow-up is recommended.
For those with inexplicable health problems, Fischoff and Wessely (2003) outlined some simpleprinciples of patient management that may be useful in the context of veteran care: • Focus communication around patients’ concerns There is evidence that both cognitive-behavioral group therapy (CBGT) and exercise are effectivefor treating Gulf War illness. In a recent clinical trial, Donata et al. (2003) reported that CBGTimproved physical function whereas exercise led to improvement in many of the symptoms of GulfWar veterans’ illnesses. Both treatments improved cognitive symptoms and mental healthfunctioning, but neither improved pain. In this study, CBGT was specifically targeted at physicalfunctioning, and included time-contingent activity pacing, pleasant activity scheduling, sleephygiene, assertiveness skills, confrontation of negative thinking and affect, and structured problemsolving skills. The low-intensity aerobic exercise intervention was designed to increase activitylevel by having veterans exercise once per week for one hour in the presence of an exercisetherapist, and independently 2-3 times per week. These findings are important because theydemonstrate that such treatments can be feasibly and successfully implemented in the VA healthcare system, and thus should be considered for the treatment of Iraq War veterans who presentwith unexplained physical symptoms.
Family Involvement in Care
The primary source of support for the returning soldier is likely to be his or her family. We knowfrom veterans of the Vietnam War that there can be a risk of disengagement from family at the timeof return from a war zone. We also know that emerging problems with ASD and PTSD can wreakhavoc with the competency and comfort the returning soldier experiences as a partner and parent.
While the returning soldier clearly needs the clinician’s attention and concern, that help can beextended to include his or her family as well. Support for the veteran and family can increase thepotential for the veteran’s smooth immediate or eventual reintegration back into family life, andreduce the likelihood of future more damaging problems.
Outpatient treatment. If the veteran is living at home, the clinician can meet with the family and
assess with them their strengths and challenges and identify any potential risks. Family and
clinician can work together to identify goals and develop a treatment plan to support the family’s
reorganization and return to stability in coordination with the veteran’s work on his or her own
personal treatment goals.
If one or both partners are identifying high tension or levels of disagreement, or the clinician isobserving that their goals are markedly incompatible, then issues related to safety need to beassessed and plans might need to be made that support safety for all family members. Coupleswho have experienced domestic violence and/or infidelity are at particularly high risk and in need DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
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of more immediate support. When couples can be offered a safe forum for discussing, negotiating,and possibly resolving conflicts, that kind of clinical support can potentially help to reduce theintensity of the feelings that can become dangerous for a family. Even support for issues to beaddressed by separating couples can be critically valuable, especially if children are involved andthe parents anticipate future co-parenting.
Residential rehabilitation treatment. Inpatient hospitalization could lengthen the time returning
personnel are away from their families, or it could be an additional absence from the family for the
veteran who has recently returned home. It is important to the ongoing support of the reuniting
family that clinicians remain aware that their patient is a partner and/or parent. Family therapy
sessions, in person or by phone if geographical distance is too great, can offer the family a forum
for working toward meeting their goals. The potential for involving the patient’s family in treatment
will depend on their geographic proximity to the treatment facility. Distance can be a barrier, but
the family can still be engaged through conference phone calls, or visits as can be arranged.
Pharmacologic treatment of acute stress reactions. Pharmacological treatment for acute stress
reactions (within one month of the trauma) is generally reserved for individuals who remain
symptomatic after having already received brief crisis-oriented psychotherapy. This approach is in
line with the deliberate attempt by military professionals to avoid medicalizing stress-related
symptoms and to adhere to a strategy of immediacy, proximity, and positive expectancy.
Prior to receiving medication for stress-related symptoms, the war zone survivor should have athorough psychiatric and medical examination, with special emphasis on medical disorders thatcan manifest with psychiatric symptoms (e.g., subdural hematoma, hyperthyroidism), potentialpsychiatric disorders (e.g., acute stress disorder, depression, psychotic disorders, panic disorder),use of alcohol and substances of abuse, use of prescribed and over-the-counter medication, andpossible drug allergies. It is important to assess the full range of potential psychiatric disorders, andnot just PTSD, since many symptomatic soldiers will be at an age when first episodes ofschizophrenia, mania, depression, and panic disorder are often seen.
In some cases a clinician may need to prescribe psychotropic medications even before completingthe medical or psychiatric examination. The acute use of medications may be necessary when thepatient is dangerous, extremely agitated, or psychotic. In such circumstances the patient should betaken to an emergency room; short acting benzodiazepines (e.g., lorazepam) or high potencyneuroleptics (e.g., Haldol) with minimal sedative, anticholinergic, and orthostatic side effects mayprove effective. Atypical neuroleptics (e.g., risperidone) may also be useful for treating aggression.
When a decision has been made to use medication for acute stress reactions, rational choices mayinclude benzodiazepines, antiadrenergics, or antidepressants. Shortly after traumatic exposure, thebrief prescription of benzodiazepines (4 days or less) has been shown to reduce extreme arousaland anxiety and to improve sleep. However, early and prolonged use of benzodiazepines iscontraindicated, since benzodiazepine use for two weeks or longer has actually has beenassociated with a higher rate of subsequent PTSD.
Although antiadrenergic agents including clonidine, guanfacine, prazosin, and propranolol havebeen recommended (primarily through open non-placebo controlled treatment trials) for the DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
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treatment of hyperarousal, irritable aggression, intrusive memories, nightmares, and insomnia insurvivors with chronic PTSD, there is only suggestive preliminary evidence of their efficacy as anacute treatment. Of importance, antiadrenergic agents should be prescribed judiciously for traumasurvivors with cardiovascular disease due to potential hypotensive effects and these agents shouldalso be tapered, rather than discontinued abruptly, in order to avoid rebound hypertension.
Further, because antiadrenergic agents might interfere with counterregulatory hormone responsesto hypoglycemia, they should not be prescribed to survivors with diabetes.
Finally, the use of antidepressants may make sense within four weeks of war, particularly whentrauma-related depressive symptoms are prominent and debilitating. To date, there has been onepublished report on the use of antidepressants for the treatment of Acute Stress Disorder. Recently-traumatized children meeting criteria for Acute Stress Disorder, who were treated with imipraminefor two weeks, experienced significantly greater symptom reduction than children who wereprescribed chloral hydrate.
Pharmacologic treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. Pharmacotherapy is rarely used as a
stand-alone treatment for PTSD and is usually combined with psychological treatment. The
following text briefly presents recommendations for the pharmaco-therapeutic treatment of PTSD,
and then the article by Friedman, Donnelly, and Mellman (2003) in Appendix H provides more
detailed information. Findings from subsequent large-scale trials with paroxetine have
demonstrated that SSRI treatment is clearly effective both for men in general and for combat
veterans suffering with PTSD.
We recommend SSRIs as first line medications for PTSD pharmacotherapy in men and womenwith military-related PTSD. SSRIs appear to be effective for all three PTSD symptom clusters inboth men and women who have experienced a variety of severe traumas and they are alsoeffective in treating a variety of co-morbid psychiatric disorders, such as major depression andpanic disorder, which are commonly seen in individuals suffering with PTSD. Additionally, theside effect profile with SSRIs is relatively benign (compared to most psychotropic medications)although arousal and insomnia may be experienced early on for some patients with PTSD.
Second line medications include nefazadone, TCAs, and MAOIs. Evidence favoring the use ofthese agents is not as compelling as for SSRIs because many fewer subjects have been tested at thispoint. The best evidence from open trials supports the use of nefazadone, which like SSRIspromotes serotonergic actions and is less likely than SSRIs to cause insomnia or sexualdysfunction. Trazadone, which has limited efficacy as a stand-alone treatment, has proven veryuseful as augmentation therapy with SSRIs; its sedating properties make it a useful bedtimemedication that can antagonize SSRI-induced insomnia. Despite some favorable evidence of theefficacy of MAOIs, these compounds have received little experimental attention since 1990.
Venlafaxine and buproprion cannot be recommended because they have not been testedsystematically in clinical trials.
There is a strong rationale from laboratory research to consider antiadrenergic agents. Iit is hopedthat more extensive testing will establish their usefulness for PTSD patients. The best research onthis class of agents has focused on prazosin, which has produced marked reduction in traumaticnightmares, improved sleep, and global improvement in veterans with PTSD. Hypotension and DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
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Despite suggestive theoretical considerations and clinical findings, there is only a small amount ofevidence to support the use of carbamazepine or valproate with PTSD patients. Further, thecomplexities of clinical management with these effective anticonvulsants have shifted currentattention to newer agents (e.g., gabapentin, lamotrigine, and topirimate), which have yet to betested systematically with PTSD patients.
Benzodiazepines cannot be recommended for patients with PTSD. They do not appear to haveefficacy against core PTSD patients. No studies have demonstrated efficacy for PTSD-specificsymptoms.
Conventional antipsychotics cannot be recommended for PTSD patients. Preliminary resultssuggest, however, that atypical antipsychotics may be useful, especially to augment treatment withfirst or second line medications, especially for patients with intense hypervigilance or paranoia,agitation, dissociation, or brief psychotic reactions associated with their PTSD. As for side effects,all atypicals may produce weight gain and olanzapine treatment has been linked to the onset ofType II diabetes mellitus.
General guidelines. Pharmacotherapy should be initiated with SSRI agents. Patients who cannot
tolerate SSRIs or who show no improvement might benefit from nefazadone, MAOIs, or TCAs.
For patients who exhibit a partial response to SSRIs, one should consider continuation oraugmentation. A recent trial with sertraline showed that approximately half of all patients whofailed to exhibit a successful clinical response after 12 weeks of sertraline treatment, did respondwhen SSRI treatment was extended for another 24 weeks. Practically speaking, clinicians andpatients usually will be reluctant to stick with an ineffective medication for 36 weeks, as in thisexperiment. Therefore, augmentation strategies seem to make sense. Here are a few suggestionsbased on clinical experience and pharmacological “guesstimates,” rather than on hard evidence: • Excessively aroused, hyperreactive, or dissociating patients might be helped by augmentation • Labile, impulsive, and/or aggressive patients might benefit from augmentation with an • Fearful, hypervigilant, paranoid, and psychotic patients might benefit from an atypical Integrating Iraq War Soldiers into Existing Specialized PTSD Services
Iraq War service members with stress-related problems may need to be integrated into existing VAPTSD Residential Rehabilitation Programs or other VA mental health programs. Approaches to thisintegration of psychiatric evacuees will vary and each receiving site will need to determine its own“best fit” model for provision of services and integration of veterans. At the National Center’s PTSDResidential Rehabilitation Program in the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, it is anticipated thatIraq War patients will generally be integrated with the rest of the milieu (e.g., for communitymeetings, affect management classes, conflict resolution, communication skills training), with theexception of identified treatment components. The latter elements of treatment, in which Iraq Warveterans will work together, will include process, case management, and acute stress/PTSDeducation groups (and, if delivered in groups, exposure therapy, cognitive restructuring, and DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
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family/couples counseling). The thoughtful mixing of returning veterans with veterans from otherwars/conflicts is likely, in general, to enhance the treatment experience of both groups.
Practitioner Issues
Working with Iraq War veterans affected by war zone trauma is likely to be emotionally difficultfor therapists. It is likely to bring up many feelings and concerns - reactions to stories of death andgreat suffering, judgments about the morality of the war, reactions to patients who have killed,feelings of personal vulnerability, feelings of therapeutic inadequacy, perceptions of a lack ofpreparation for acute care - that may affect ability to listen empathically to the patient andmaintain the therapeutic relationship (Sonnenberg, 1996). Koshes (1996) suggested that those atgreatest risk for strong personal reactions might be young, inexperienced staff who are close in ageto patients and more likely to identify with them, and technicians or paraprofessional workers whomay have less formal education about the challenges associated with treating these patients butwho actually spend the most time with patients. Regardless of degree of experience, all mentalhealth workers must monitor themselves and practice active self-care, and managers must ensurethat training, support, and supervision are part of the environment in which care is offered.
References and Additional Resources
Bien, T.H., Miller, W.R., & Tonigan, J.S. (1993). Brief interventions for alcohol problems: A review.
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