A well-known treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in civilians significantly reduced PTSD symptoms in active-duty military personnel who took part in a study published last week by the Duke University School of Medicine.
The study, in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, is the largest randomized clinical trial to date to apply cognitive processing therapy, or CPT, which has been used among civilians for decades, to active-military patients who are suffering from PTSD. It found that while using the treatment in both group and individual sessions significantly reduced PTSD symptoms, individual treatment was nearly twice as effective.
The study divided 268 participants from the U.S. Army’s Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, into two groups, one that would receive the individualized CPT, while the other half participated in group CPT sessions.
While both groups showed significant improvement to their mental health over the course of 12 sessions, close to 50 percent of participants who were given individual CPT were able to progress to a point where they were no longer medically classified as suffering from PTSD. About 37 percent of the participants in the group sessions progressed to this point.
CPT is a method of treatment that involves evaluating the thoughts and beliefs associated with a patient’s traumatic experience, which for many in the military involves blaming themselves for events in combat that are out of their control, according to Patricia Resick, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine and lead author of the study.
Resick said that this tendency comes from the belief that in a “just world” good things happen to good people, which for some could also mean that if something bad happens it’s because you’re a bad person.
“Instead of looking to the perpetrator of the trauma, they look to themselves to assign blame,” Resick said. “What we do is we systematically lead them through a series of steps to teach them to ask themselves questions so they can make more balanced statements about themselves.”
Resick developed CPT in the 1980s to treat victims of rape and other interpersonal trauma. But the treatment was not applied to combat-related PTSD and related conditions in active-duty military personnel and recent veterans until the U.S. Departments of Defense-funded national research consortium called STRONG STAR was created in 2008 to study methods of detection, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of the disorder.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Alan Peterson, director of the STRONG STAR Consortium and professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio, said civilian research groups had not tested CPT on military personnel because they had a difficult time modifying their treatments to meet the needs of those who have been in combat.
Peterson said that getting treatment for PTSD carries a stigma of weakness that can prevent patients from seeking it out, or even acknowledging that there is a problem.
“Sometimes they would rather deploy and walk across a mine field than sit down and tell someone what happened to them,” Peterson said. “If we called it the ‘PTSD Consortium,’ then no one would come in.”
Peterson said that the most important outcome of the study for him was that PTSD treatment need only last months, not a lifetime.
“Without the proper type of treatment, yes, people can suffer for a lifetime,” Peterson said. “That’s what we’re trying to correct.”
There are many ways to cope with PTSD, Peterson said, such as using service dogs, going hiking or on camping retreats, rafting, music, art and yoga, but these things do not get at the root cause of the patient’s PTSD.
“Part of what causes PTSD is there’s one or more really horrible events that have occurred, and you need to drill down on the thoughts and memories that go with that,” Peterson said. “CPT drills down on the beliefs the people have about themselves and the world and the future.”
Peterson said the Duke study has already spawned five new clinical trials which will seek to determine whether more individualized treatment plans than the standard 12-session model will be more effective in reaching those with more complex cases of PTSD who were part of the 50 percent that showed slower progress.
Gavin Stone: 919-829-4520