Detecting PTSD Before It Happens

Researchers at the University of Texas Imaging Research Center found that if soldiers exhibit certain physical and emotional characteristics before deployment, they were more likely to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after deployment. Brian Baldwin, a former Army officer whose cousin suffered from PTSD after Vietnam, sought to find out why some service members came home with PTSD and some did not.

The research raises questions about how, if a predisposition to PTSD can be detected, screenings for PTSD should be used. Should soldiers who might be vulnerable for PTSD be kept out of combat? If a soldier showed a predisposition for PTSD on a screening was sent to combat and then developed PTSD, then what kind of liability would the military face? After a decade of war, this is an important subject and important questions:

Telch’s work is part of a provocative new strand of PTSD research, using modern psychology and computer science to unlock why and when a traumatic experience can derail a life. These studies—not just in military but civilian populations, too, testing cops and other first responders—hold the potential to transform our understanding of PTSD, changing it from an enigmatic and disruptive affliction that crashes over some people but not others, to a condition that can actually be predicted, quantified, and prepared for.

While it sounds promising, the new research also raises ethical questions: If it becomes possible to screen enlistees for their vulnerability to PTSD, is it fair to keep some out of combat and send in others, especially in an all-volunteer military where every solider has raised his or her hand to take the same risks? And if you send these potentially troubled enlistees to war anyway, what is your liability for any harm they do to themselves afterward? Or to others?

Even if a test is developed, some PTSD experts question whether we should screen soldiers at all. To do so could create the impression that battle trauma is something orderly, even manageable, when war itself is chaos and the consequences of facing combat uncontrollable. To screen soldiers for PTSD, some experts believe, is to pretend war is something it’s not.
Continue reading at the Boston Globe.

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