COVID-19, Hearings on Jan. 6 Attack Reignite Interest in PTSD

Col. (Ret.) Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, MD, MPH


August 02, 2021

After Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent long war in Iraq and Afghanistan, both mental health providers and the general public focused on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, after almost 20 years of war and the COVID-19 epidemic, attention waned away from military service members and PTSD.

Dr Elspeth Ritchie

COVID-19–related PTSD and the hearings on the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol have reignited interest in PTSD diagnosis and treatment. Testimony from police officers at the House select committee hearing about their experiences during the assault and PTSD was harrowing. One of the police officers had also served in Iraq, perhaps leading to "layered PTSD" — symptoms from war abroad and at home.

Thus, I thought a brief review of updates about diagnosis and treatment would be useful. Note: These are my opinions based on my extensive experience and do not represent the official opinion of my employer (MedStar Health).

PTSD was first classified as a disorder in 1980, based mainly on the experiences of military service members in Vietnam, as well as sexual assault victims and disaster survivors. Readers may look elsewhere for a fuller history of the disorder.

However, in brief, we have evolved from strict reliance on a variety of symptoms in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to a more global determination of the experience of trauma and related symptoms of distress. We still rely for diagnosis on trauma-related anxiety and depression symptoms, such as nightmare, flashbacks, numbness, and disassociation.

Treatment has evolved. Patients may benefit from treatment even if they do not meet all the PTSD criteria. As many of my colleagues who treat patients have said, "if it smells like PTSD, treat it like PTSD."

What is the most effective treatment? The literature declares that evidence-based treatments include two selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (Zoloft and Paxil) and several psychotherapies. The psychotherapies include cognitive-behavioral therapies, exposure therapy, and EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing).

The problem is that many patients cannot tolerate these therapies. SSRIs do have side effects, the most distressing being sexual dysfunction. Many service members do not enter the psychotherapies, or they drop out of trials, because they cannot tolerate the reimagining of their trauma.

I now counsel patients about the "three buckets" of treatment. The first bucket is medication, which as a psychiatrist is what I focus on. The second bucket is psychotherapy as discussed above. The third bucket is "everything else."

"Everything else" includes a variety of methods the patients can use to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms: exercising; deep breathing through the nose; doing yoga; doing meditation; playing or working with animals; gardening; and engaging in other activities that "self sooth." I also recommend always doing "small acts of kindness" for others. I myself contribute to food banks and bring cookies or watermelons to the staff at my hospital.

Why is this approach useful? A menu of options gives control back to the patient. It provides activities that can reduce anxiety. Thinking about caring for others helps patients get out of their own "swamp of distress."

We do live in very difficult times. We're coping with COVID-19 Delta variant, attacks on the Capitol, and gun violence. I have not yet mentioned climate change, which is extremely frightening to many of us. So all providers need to be aware of all the strategies at our disposal to treat anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Ritchie is chair of psychiatry at Medstar Washington (D.C.) Hospital Center. She has no conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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