PTSD treatment’s evolution – from unknown to necessity

Matthew Friedman, executive director, VA's National Center for PTSD

wfedstaff | June 4, 2015 9:13 am

By Courtney Thompson
Federal News Radio

Talk of an Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing treatment for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would be impossible if not for the perseverance of early researchers.

Dr. Matthew Friedman, a pioneer in traumatic studies, is a finalist for the Service to America Awards for his nearly 40 years of experience in veteran affairs.

“I really kind of got into this by accident,” the current executive director of the VA’s National Center for PTSD told Federal News Radio. “But I was hooked very, very quickly and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

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Friedman’s career began at a VA hospital in 1973 towards the end of the Vietnam War. His time talking to war veterans and seeing their level of distress prompted his interest in exploring a diagnosis.

“We just didn’t know what to call it,” he said. “And then, I started reading about war stress and things of this sort.”

Initially, Friedman said he wanted to use a treatment approach similar to methods used for alcoholism and substance abuse, but he soon discovered the veterans’ symptoms of depression and flashbacks did not exactly match with classic psychiatry cases.

“What I found was it had very, very little of anything to do with substance abuse or alcoholism,” he said. “It had to do with something much more profound that I didn’t completely or even begin to understand.”

At that time, Friedman said the only literature in the study included syndromes that were named by their causes. But he added that an official diagnosis was non-existent.

By the late 1970s, he said, the American Psychiatric Association started organizing common symptoms among holocaust survivors, war veterans, and domestic abuse victims and by 1980 the group coined PTSD as an official diagnosis.

In defining PTSD, Friedman said the association tried to emphasize the reaction rather than different traumatic types of events that led to a patient’s symptoms.

Additionally, he said the diagnosis of PTSD “de-stigmatized” the disorder and surpassed the psycho-analytic approach which had dominated the field for years.

“It really opened up a very exciting and important new area for treatment, for research,” he said. “It’s changed a lot of our theory in psychiatry and behavioral health and even in public health.”

Friedman was named as the first executive director of PTSD’s National Center in 1989 and created a consortium of seven centers at various VA medical facilities.

As a Career Achievement Medal nominee, he is a contender for the Federal Employee of the Year Honor awarded by the Partnership for Public Service in September.

Check out the rest of the Sammies finalists.

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Courtney Thompson is an intern with Federal News Radio.

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