Patients who have experienced complex (childhood) trauma or C-PTSD are frequently stigmatized by healthcare institutions, and ignored, misdiagnosed or worse if they attend clinics or hospitals (Benjamin, 2019). The very services they turn to for help often to treat them with disregard, disrespect, or contempt, especially if there are self-harm or suicidal symptoms, potentially re-enacting or repeating the original trauma which was relational. Often, patients report being treated like wayward adolescents, ignored, disrespected or at worst rendered powerless. Like a client of mine who felt suicidal and sought admission to protect herself from her own impulses, but then was discharged from hospital abruptly when she attempted suicide on the ward, with no clear safety plan.
Patients are effectively silenced with strong medications, ECT or other treatments which lack substantive evidence base, such as admission to hospital for long periods of time which has been shown to decrease positive outcomes in complex trauma( Fisher et al, 2015). While working as a nurse in the past I have observed many patients arriving at the hospital with large plastic bags filled with medication on admission. Instead of asking “what happened to you” as we should, many health professionals only ask ” do you have any risks?” or “do you want some seroquel?” There is little understanding of the long term impact of adverse childhood experiences(ACEs), the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of medications, the importance of a collaborative approach, or even the neuroscience of trauma and attachment despite decades of research.
There is even less recognition of the various dissociative conditions that accompany complex trauma, ranging from “structural dissociation” (Steele et al) to depersonalisation, derealization or DID. ( Kezelman & Stavropoulos, 2019)
Why is this? Well, one of the reasons is that the practice of medicine is supposed to be evidence based- that is- relying on scientific studies that are well designed and free from bias, to inform best practice. This means that as the science evolves, ways of treating conditions should evolve too. However, in Australia the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) is a widely relied upon taxonomy of mental health conditions with descriptions. In the medical world, there is growing concern about DSM, and both national and international research funding bodies are no longer supporting research proposals linked to DSM criteria as they are not valid or reliable(Benjamin, 2019).
DSM categories and descriptions are simply based on the opinions of psychiatrists in the US, who do not always listen to the opinion of subject matter experts. Concerningly, it has been reported in the BMJ and by many others that up to 75% of these contributors to the DSM are funded directly or indirectly by drug companies (Moynihan, 2015). Further, the drug companies have a publication bias which ignores drug trials which don’t further their marketing of drugs! (Wampold et. al, 2013) Drugs may also be declared safe for long term use after a trial of only six weeks. The editor of the British Medical Journal resigned in protest at this publication bias some years ago, but as yet no government will curtail Big Pharma as they risk losing their substantial political donations. Moynihan points out that in 2015, drug companies sponsored 30,000 “education events”, and his research shows that drug companies are ever lowering thresholds for the definition of many diseases to sell more product, for example ADHD medication.
DSM classifications are widely used by government, health insurance funds, and health professionals to communicate information about patients. This framework favours medication as the promary and often only treatment recommended for many conditions that are in fact the sequelae of complex trauma.
Patients are stigmatised by labels like Borderline Personality Disorder, and this contributes to the problem of creating a health care system with appropriate care and treatment for people with complex trauma symptoms. The labels imply that the problem is caused by or located purely in the patient, instead of co-locating the problem within the family and societal system. Many concerned doctors such as Bessel Van Der Kolk have written about this distortion of the therapeutic lens, and Bessel has tried strenuously to influence the medical DSM panels in their description and understanding of trauma. However, the panels have so far rejected the evidence and maintain DSM categories which are pejorative and unhelpful for best practice in treatment of complex trauma.
Very few organisations have properly or even partially implemented the Guidelines for Trauma Sensitive and Trauma Informed Service Delivery published in 2012 by the Blue Knot Foundation ( Formerly ASCA ), and revised in 2019.
Also using drugs as first line treatment means that patients are never taught the skills and attitudes necessary to manage uncomfortable emotions like anxiety and depression, to manage flashbacks or panic attacks, or to deal with the shame, fragmentation and loneliness of their condition. Over time, they may become more dependent on medication and less self- trusting and self-resourcing.
Yet due to funding costs in hospitals and lack of real support for staff, many clinicians are under so much pressure that they can scarcely listen to, let alone respond to in a thoughtful, respectful and collaborative way, to the patients who are presenting for help. Literally, their stress levels are so high their brains are “off line” a lot of the time. This often creates a massive over-response to and focus on “risk” or “safety” rather than care, choice and collaboration.
To be fair, clinicians are generally taught little about complex trauma during their training, but there is such a negative response to symptoms such as self harm that much leadership, reform and education will be needed before mainstream services change (Benjamin, 2019). We also need to be aware of ethical boundaries that prescribe how organisations, governments and individual clinicians should best respond to outside attempts to influence, including gifts, overseas travel, education, wine, food, gratuities and other incentives from drug companies, and seek greater transparency in research on drugs with supposed efficacy. Some work has been done on this in Australia but not enough in my opinion.
In the meantime, those of us who work closely with individuals with complex trauma must do what we can to educate and inspire change, where possible in our professional networks or groups, in addition to educating our clients. This website is part of my desire to support change!
In the next blog, I will turn to what Clinicians can do to work more effectively with patients suffering from complex trauma.