Recently the American Psychological Association (APA) published clinical practice guidelines for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The reaction from the clinical community that treats those with PTSD, client groups, and from many academic and research quarters was swift and negative. APA received almost 900 comments in their public consultations from many who felt the document was overly prescriptive, overly symptom-focused, and narrow in its recommendations. In this interesting inside look at the process, the Chair of the PTSD Practice Guidelines Committee (Christine Courtois) and a senior member of the Committee (Laura Brown) wrote a scathing commentary of the process imposed on them by APA that constrained the Committee’s access to information which affected their decisions. The Committee was bound by APA’s use of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) rules for developing practice guidelines. In other words, a psychological organization (APA) used a biomedical model to define what is relevant research, how to define treatment, what is an appropriate outcome, and how to decide on recommendations. As a result, the APA Committee reached several conclusions/decisions that were biased or premature. First, they defined PTSD only by its symptom presentation and not for the complex disorder that it is. In other words, PTSD was viewed almost exclusively from within a framework that defined it as only a fear-based response to a stressor. Such an approach downplays any developmental or attachment-related factors in the genesis or maintenance of PTSD. Second, the Committee was instructed to ignore a vast array of research on therapist factors, relationship factors, and client factors in psychotherapy. This runs counter to many clinicians’ views that one cannot engage in technical interventions related to PTSD symptoms without the patient experiencing a heightened sense of security in their relationship with the therapist. This also meant that the Committee largely ignored cultural and diversity factors. Third, the treatment recommendations focused on time-limited exposure-based interventions – which is a natural outcome of the first two decisions (i.e., seeing PTSD as only fear-based, ignoring issues of development, and ignoring relational factors in the treatment context). The authors were also disappointed that the APA ignored its own policy on evidence-based practice that puts equal weight on research, clinician expertise, and client factors when making clinical decisions. In the end the authors clearly were not confident in the narrow focus of the Clinical Practice Guideline, and they were concerned that clinicians, researchers, policy makers, and third party funders could misuse the Guideline to limit research, theory, and funding.
In this extraordinary piece, the Chair and a senior committee member of the PTSD Practice Guideline Committee were highly critical of the process and outcome of APA’s effort to develop clinical practice guidelines for PTSD. The authors did not diminish the importance of exposure-based interventions for PTSD, however they did argue that these interventions must be offered only after clinicians take a sufficient amount of time to create a clinical context characterized by clients experiencing heightened safety in the therapeutic relationship, and to into account client preferences and culture. Further, clinicians should be highly sensitive to attachment-related insecurities and developmental traumas that may lengthen the treatment and that may have a complicating impact on the therapeutic relationship.