Education Observations Policy Reading

DSM-5: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

This is another post from my DSM-5 e-mail list. If you find the information below useful or interesting, you are welcome to join.

(747 words = 5 min read)

The essential feature of PTSD is the development of reactive symptoms following exposure to a traumatic event. The diagnosis of PTSD has notable changes in DSM-5.

One difference is that, according to DSM-5, a person no longer needs to experience emotional reactions (“intense fear, helplessness, or horror” described in DSM-IV) to the trauma.

The authors provide a long list to describe criterion A (“exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways”). Note that sexual violence is now included in the definition.

Criterion A also allows for the diagnosis of PTSD for individuals who have had only indirect exposure to the trauma, though the trauma must have occurred to “close relatives or friends”. There is also a clause for repeated and extreme exposures, such as what paramedics and other first responders witness. The events of September 11, 2001, have influenced this diagnosis.

Criterion B, previously the “re-experiencing” sphere, is now the “intrusion” sphere. These symptoms include memories, nightmares, dissociation, and distressing reactions to internal and external cues related to the trauma.

Criterion C remains the “avoidance” sphere (avoidance of both internal and external reminders), though patients only need to meet one of two criteria in DSM-5 (versus three of seven in DSM-IV).

Criterion D encompasses “negative alterations in cognitions and mood”, which includes memory problems, negative thoughts (think Beck’s cognitive theory of depression), and resulting distressing emotions. This criterion helps capture the “comorbidity” of depression seen in PTSD.

Criterion E is the “hyperarousal” sphere that describes the irritability, “jumpiness”, and paranoia often seen in PTSD.

The authors note that these symptoms must persist for at least one month and cause “clinically significant distress or impairment”. As usual, they ask that the reader ensure that these symptoms are not due to a medical problems or a substance use disorder. There are only two specifiers:

  • with dissociative symptoms (depersonalization or derealization)
  • with delayed expression (full criteria are not met until at least six months after the event… the authors state that there is “abundant evidence” to support the delay in symptom appearance, but do not offer any explanations as to why)

The authors also include PTSD criteria for children ages six and under (which I will not review here, since I only work with adults… child psychiatrists, I direct you to page 272).

The authors note “auditory pseudo-hallucinations, such as having the sensory experience of hearing one’s thoughts spoken in one or more voices”, as well as paranoid ideation, can be present in PTSD. I find this useful because, previously, I’d give a primary diagnosis of PTSD and a secondary diagnosis of “psychosis NOS”, though it was clear that these were not “organic” psychotic symptoms.

The authors also note that prolonged exposure to trauma can result in emotion dysregulation, problems with stable interpersonal relationships, and dissociative symptoms… which sounds a lot like borderline personality disorder.

DSM-5 states that the projected lifetime risk for PTSD is only about 9%. This speaks to the resilience people possess, as much more than 9% of the population experiences trauma described in criterion A. Complete recovery is within three months for about half of adults. This again is a testament to the resilience people have.

PTSD is also diagnosed much more in the US than in other Western countries. (Paul McHugh has written a lot about the amplification of PTSD in the US.) Women are more likely than men to receive a diagnosis of PTSD. Those at highest risk of developing PTSD include survivors of rape, military combat and captivity, and ethnically or politically motivated internment and genocide.

The authors divide risk factors for PTSD into three groups:

  1. pretraumatic factors (temperament; childhood adversity; racial minority; etc.)
  2. peritraumatic factors (severity/dose of trauma; interpersonal violence; etc.)
  3. posttraumatic factors (“negative appraisals”; exposure to upsetting reminders; etc.)

The differential diagnosis for PTSD is one of the largest in psychiatry; it includes other stress disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, psychotic disorders, and neurocognitive disorders. PTSD also has many “comorbid” conditions as already noted above; DSM-5 states that 80% of people diagnosed with PTSD are likely to have symptoms that meet criteria for another mood, anxiety, or substance use disorder.

Anecdotally speaking, people wrestling with homelessness and poverty often have a significant history of trauma. We might assume that the homeless caused their own problems. When you start asking clarifying questions, however, you often learn that they had horrifying childhoods. Just some food for thought.

Next time: Probably bipolar disorder.

Education Lessons Medicine Observations Reflection

On Being a Person.

Upon looking at me, there’s no doubt about it: I am Asian.

My ethnicity occasionally becomes a topic of conversation with patients. Some immediately ask me, “Yang… that’s Chinese, right?”

Others take a different approach:

“Where are you from?”

“Where am I from?” (This is meant to clarify the question, as it can mean different things….)

“I mean, where did your family come from? What part of Asia?”

Patients with significant psychotic symptoms occasionally start conversations with me like this:

“Konnichiwa! Ichiban? Teriyaki?”

or they might say things like this:

“God has a good recipe for kim chi. Do you want to know what it is?”

For the most part, it is completely clear that these conversations arise from benign intentions: Patients are trying to make a connection.

Even if I speak English with a perfect California accent or wear clothes that blend in with the fashion of Seattle, I cannot mask that I am Asian. It is a significant part of my identity and I bring it with me wherever I go.

While in training psychiatrists are often encouraged to present oneself as a “blank slate”. This psychodynaimc argument states that the more neutral you are—in speech, attire, manner etc.—the more you can analyze the “transference”, or what reactions (emotions, thoughts, behaviors) patients have upon interacting with you. These reactions are the grist for the therapeutic mill.

We, however, can never present ourselves as blank slates. Patients—people!—notice both what we bring to an interaction and what is absent. People might have opinions about my ethnicity, my facial expressions, the tone of my voice, or the scribbles I make during the conversation. They might also have opinions if I make few utterances, maintain an expressionless face, and answer questions only with questions (as demonstrated above).

Instead of being a “blank slate”, sometimes the best thing we can do as psychiatrists is to be a person.[1. To be clear, a psychiatrist should be a professional person; this is no time for sloppiness or disregard for a patient’s wellbeing and dignity. Being the best professional person you can be is still being a person.]

If people have relationship difficulties, we can be an actual person so that the patient can learn how relationships with people can be different. If people come to treatment because they have challenging relationships with themselves, we can be an actual person so the patient can learn how these views of self affect not only them, but also other people. If people have tenuous connections with reality, we can be an actual person who provides accurate feedback about “reality” (and make very clear that we’re not trying to steal their internal organs, etc.).

Being an actual person can be scary. We might worry what people (colleagues, patients, others) think of us. However, that vulnerability and authenticity we bring as people to the clinical interaction might be the most healing and inspiring to our patients.

Lessons Medicine Nonfiction Reflection

A Dream.

A few days before I learned what happened, I had a dream about you. When I awoke, my heart felt like a bird flapping its wings inside the cage of my ribs.

The details had vanished. Only anxiety remained.

I gasped when I learned what happened. I suddenly remembered the little details, the things that never made it into the clinical notes: You liked your coffee black. You read the Wall Street Journal. You missed driving your sports car.

Where did you kill yourself? Did you get a motel room? Were you outside? What time of day was it?

You certainly planned this. When did you make the final decision? Did you waver? Did you want to waver?

They say that there are two kinds of psychiatrists: The kind who have never had a patient commit suicide, and the kind who have had patients kill themselves.

I now belong to the second group. We all join the second group at some point.

I wish you hadn’t killed yourself.

I thank you for what you have taught me, both in life and in death.

I wish you had the peace in life that you thought was only available in death.

May peace be with you now.

Education Lessons Medicine Policy

Involuntary Commitment (VI).

Recall in the second scenario the man who was throwing his furniture out of his apartment due to concerns that someone or something was trying to take over his room. How would you apply involuntary commitment criteria here?

1. Does this person want to harm himself or someone else?

There isn’t compelling evidence that he wanted to harm himself—if anything, he suggested that his behaviors were attempts at self-preservation.

Though he never said that he wanted to harm someone else, his behavior was inadvertently putting other people in danger: He had already thrown stuff out the window, where it could have injured people on the sidewalk. He also threw a guitar in your direction, though, thankfully, it didn’t hit you.

2. How imminent is this risk of harm to self or others?

Imminent. He does not appear to be responding to direction to stop throwing things and perhaps it is only luck that the items he has thrown has not hurt anyone.

3. Are these behaviors due to a psychiatric condition?


Given what we know about his history and the timeline of events, it seems likely that these behaviors are due to a psychiatric condition. However, these behaviors could feasibly be due to drug use or medical problems.

Related: Will hospitalization help treat the underlying psychiatric condition?

Probably. Hospitalization has historically helped this man recover from his acute symptoms.

What actually happened?

After the guitar crashed into the wall, other people—neighbors, staff—arrived. The man had retreated back into his room and continued to shout: “People don’t UNDERSTAND none of this is MINE how did this even HAPPEN why did I think it was OKAY I won’t let it happen again I won’t let it happen again—”

After tucking myself around the corner, I shooed away the neighbors; they needed to get out of there for their own safety. A social worker used her hands to mime making a phone call, her eyebrows raised as if asking a question. I nodded.

“Hey,” I said in a quiet voice[1. The next time you’re trying to lower the volume of someone else’s voice, try lowering the volume of your own voice. It’s hard to yell when the other person is barely audible.], “I’m sorry you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just so you know, though, we’re calling 911. I’m worried about you.”

He grabbed the clock off of the wall with one hand and a framed photo of his sister and him with the other and threw both out the window. Both shattered when they hit the sidewalk.

“I DON’T CARE you can do whatever the F@#$ you want I just NEED to get rid of all this SH!T—”

The rest of us waited.

Before the police and paramedics arrived, he had thrown a floor lamp, more silverware, and much of his clothing out the window. Papers were scattered on the floor. He smashed all the mirrors in his apartment. He tore the curtains from the walls. He threw several pieces of fruit, one remote control, and his pillows out into the hallway.

I braced myself as the police appeared in the hallway. Please cooperate… please cooperate… I hope the cops won’t be jerks…

The social worker had already briefed the police and paramedics about the situation.

“You Dr. Yang?” an officer asked. I nodded.

“And that’s the guy?”


“We’ll take it from here. Can you write an affidavit?”[2. An affidavit is a written declaration that is used in court, in this case to hospitalize this man against his will. The police were asking me to write the affidavit because of my credential and because of my relationship with the patient. This affidavit included my opinion that he was a danger to others, given that he had thrown a guitar at me and had continuously thrown items out of his window.]

He was rummaging through his closet when the officers knocked on the door. He looked over his shoulder and paused as the officers greeted him. A few beats of silence followed.

“OH GOD WHY WON’T THEY LEAVE ME ALONE?” the man suddenly bawled. He fell to the ground and began to weep. After glancing at each other and then me, the officers and paramedics walked in.

He initially balked at their overtures about transport to the hospital, though he ultimately agreed. He choked on his sobs on the gurney as the paramedics wheeled him down the hallway.

He was in the hospital for over a month.

At our next appointment, he sat in the chair, his eyes glazed over, his body twenty pounds heavier.

“I’m sorry about what happened that day,” he said.

“That’s okay,” I murmured. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Education Homelessness Lessons Medicine NYC Policy

Involuntary Commitment (V).

Recall that the first scenario described a homeless woman who did not seem inclined to move to shelter despite the forecast of a heavy snowstorm. How would you apply involuntary commitment criteria?

1. Does this person want to harm himself or someone else?

There was no evidence at that time to suggest that she was considering suicide or homicide. One might wonder about grave disability, as her behavior in that context was not consistent with most other homeless people at that time. (Because of the pending snowstorm, most of the homeless encampments were empty that morning.)

2. How imminent is this risk of harm to self or others?

Imminent. The snowstorm had already started and six inches were forecasted to cover the ground in the next few hours. If the snowstorm occurred as predicted and she did not move, she would be at significant risk of developing hypothermia, frostbite, or complications from both.

3. Are these behaviors due to a psychiatric condition?


She had mentioned one thing (“The government secrets are safe with me”) that might suggest a delusion, though we don’t really know what she meant when she said that. Her behavior suggests paranoia, though it is also understandable if people don’t want to talk to strangers.

Just because someone is homeless does not automatically mean that mental illness is present, though individuals who are chronically homeless are more likely to have a mental illness. Given what we knew about her, it seemed more likely than not that she has a psychiatric condition.

Related: Will hospitalization help treat the underlying psychiatric condition?


If it isn’t clear if she has a psychiatric condition, then it isn’t clear if hospitalization would help.

So what actually happened?

The outreach workers working with me wanted to send her to the hospital for evaluation and treatment. I wasn’t confident that she would actually be hospitalized. If I was working in an psychiatric emergency room, I probably would have released her. Her presentation did not seem to meet a minimum threshold for dangerousness, though she did not appear well.

The snow continued to fall. No one said anything. I excused myself to step away and consider the options.

I was worried about her. She had reported that she had been homeless for decades in New York; this wasn’t the first major snowstorm to hit the area. However, she was now older and just because she survived past snowstorms did not mean that she would survive this one. Furthermore, other individuals with comparable experience with homelessness had abandoned their campsites that morning—why hadn’t she?

In New York State, two physicians are required to detain a person against her will. If I began the process in the street, the emergency room psychiatrist could either complete the process or reject my proposal and release the individual.

With reluctance, I ultimately began the process for involuntary commitment. I was not convinced that she needed hospitalization, though I knew that the process would take several hours. Hopefully, the snow storm would blow through in that time.

She wasn’t pleased when the ambulance arrived (“I’m fine… I’m fine…”), though she did not resist the paramedics. I sat in the back of the ambulance with her. She was shivering. Neither one of us said anything; what could we talk about?

“So… what do you think of this weather we’re having?”

Upon arrival at the emergency room, I gave a brief report and the commitment paperwork to the psychiatrist on duty. The psychiatrist commented that he had never seen her before, which did not surprise me: Sometimes the most vulnerable and ill individuals never interact with the health care system.

“From what you’re telling me, I don’t think we’re going to detain her,” the emergency room psychiatrist said.

“I understand.”

A guard and a nurse asked her to empty out her pockets and remove her parka. She did not balk. Though I knew she was thin, I was taken aback with just how slender her frame was.

The snowstorm blew through. Close to eight inches collected on the ground. The rare pedestrian dashed across the empty streets through the blurry grey air.

I got a phone call as the storm was ending.

“We’re not going to hospitalize her; there’s not enough.”

“That’s fine. Thanks for letting me know.”

The next time I saw her she was standing on a corner, her hands in the pockets of that same parka. When I greeted her, she turned around and walked away quickly. She spurned my greetings for nearly three months.

I understood and could not blame her.

Only after three months did she finally agree to talk with me. One brisk morning, while she was still tucked under the plastic bags filled with paper, she finally told me her story. She probably demonstrated significant psychiatric symptoms in the past (and was probably diagnosed with schizophrenia), though she experienced less symptoms now. She still didn’t want housing because she believed that she didn’t deserve housing.

I left New York and she remained. I still think about her occasionally and wonder if she is still alive.