PTSD: National Center for PTSD
Helping Survivors: Long-Term Treatment Interventions Following Disaster and Mass Violence
Helping Survivors: Long-Term Treatment Interventions Following Disaster and Mass Violence
In the immediate aftermath of disaster and mass violence, provision of practical support and psychosocial interventions like Psychological First Aid (PFA) and Skills for Psychological Recovery (SPR) are likely to be sufficient for the majority of those who are exhibiting mild to moderate distress or trouble functioning. In the months following a disaster, a smaller proportion of the population who are exhibiting more severe or protracted reactions may benefit from more intensive interventions.
In This Article
PTSD Treatment in General Populations
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the most commonly studied mental health problem observed in disaster studies (1,2). Prevalence estimates range from 30% to 40% among direct victims, 10% to 20% among rescue workers, and 5% to 10% among the general population (3,4). The psychological treatments for PTSD with the strongest empirical support are Prolonged Exposure (PE), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), according to the revised (2023) VA/DoD Clinical Practice Guideline for PTSD (5). PE, CPT, and EMDR have been tested in numerous clinical trials, in people with complex presentations and comorbidities, in comparison to active control conditions, and with long-term follow-up designs (6).
PE helps people process negative trauma-related emotions and overcome avoidance through imaginal exposure (repeatedly re-telling their traumatic event) and in vivo exposure to safe situations that have been avoided because they elicit traumatic reminders. CPT has a primary focus on challenging and modifying maladaptive beliefs related to the trauma. CPT emphasizes cognitive restructuring through the use of Socratic dialogue to help people examine problematic beliefs, emotions, and negative appraisals stemming from the event, such as self-blame or mistrust (7). Those receiving EMDR engage in imaginal exposure to a trauma memory followed by imagining a more healthy cognitive reappraisal while simultaneously performing saccadic eye movements.
PTSD Treatment in Survivors of Mass Violence and Disaster
There are a number of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of trauma-focused treatments targeting adults with PTSD resulting from mass violence and disaster. Three RCTs have been conducted with those who met criteria for PTSD as a result of exposure to terrorism or mass violence. All 3 studies evaluated standard 8-12 session trauma-focused psychotherapies that included cognitive restructuring and exposure. In 2 of the studies, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was compared to treatment as usual (8,9) and in one it was compared to waitlist (10). In all 3 studies trauma-focused CBT resulted in significantly more improvement in PTSD relative to the control condition. In 2 out of 3 studies there were also greater reductions in symptoms of depression.
Studies of PTSD samples after natural disasters have utilized less standard trauma-focused treatments. Two RCTs documented greater decreases in PTSD symptoms, relative to control groups, among participants who received a single session behavioral treatment aimed at increasing control over earthquake related fears through confronting feared situations (11,12). A third RCT examined the effectiveness of 4 sessions of Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET), a trauma-focused intervention where disaster-affected individuals write detailed accounts of their lives with a focus on the impact of the disaster, in this study, following an earthquake. Participants in NET showed significant improvement in PTSD relative to a waitlist (13).
There are a several open trials for disaster-related PTSD as well. The majority are trauma-focused CBT interventions (e.g., 14-16) but there are a few studies in support of EMDR as a treatment for disaster-related PTSD (e.g., 17,18), and one utilizing a yoga breath intervention with and without exposure (19). In each case the intervention resulted in significant decreases in PTSD from pre- to post-treatment.
Although PTSD is one of the most common post-disaster mental health effects, it is not the only problem. Anxiety and depression are also common, as well as nonspecific psychological distress and health concerns (20). Increases in substance use are also frequently reported. There are no RCTs of treatments in adult disaster survivors with psychiatric diagnoses other than PTSD. Best practice is to use the evidence-based treatments for these other disorders.
There are no RCTs of treatments that target non-specific distress in adults post-disaster, but there are a few disaster-specific interventions that have been evaluated with open trials. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Postdisaster Distress (CBT-PD) is an 8-12 session treatment with a primary focus on identifying and challenging maladaptive disaster-related beliefs. It is conceptualized as a transdiagnostic treatment because it targets the core psychological processes of negative affect and avoidance that underlie a range of disorders common after disaster, rather than a specific disorder, such as PTSD. CBT-PD has been used in response to both natural disasters and terrorism (e.g., the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and the L'Aquila earthquake in Italy). Open trials in a variety of settings suggest CBT-PD is not only acceptable and tolerable to disaster survivors, but also effective in reducing distress (21,22).
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the New York State Office of Mental Health initiated an enhanced services program that did not require survivors to meet criteria for PTSD diagnosis. The program offered a cognitive behavioral intervention to address current symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety along with a traumatic grief intervention. Survivors who received enhanced services had fewer symptoms of depression and grief and improved functioning as compared to those who received standard crisis counseling (23).
There is strong evidence in support of trauma-focused treatments for adult disaster survivors with PTSD. For survivors who present with other disorders, evidence-based treatments for those disorders should be utilized. There is some support for using interventions that do not target specific disorders.
For more information about early and intermediate interventions for those affected by disaster and mass violence events, see:
- Helping Survivors: Early Interventions Following Disaster and Mass Violence
- Helping Survivors: Intermediate Treatment Interventions Following Disaster and Mass Violence
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