WASHINGTON — The case of a military psychiatrist accused of
13 deaths at Fort Hood has prompted mental health professionals to examine
whether those who treat patients with post traumatic stress disorder
occasionally experience “secondary” symptoms of the affliction.
Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, was trained to
treat soldiers with trauma as an intern, resident and fellow at Walter Reed
Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. There he described the moral dilemma of
being Muslim in an army at war with Muslim countries and even had contact with
a radical imam in the months prior to the shootings, according to the FBI.
Hasan had about one year of clinical experience before he
was arrested on Nov. 5 for the shooting spree that left 13 dead and more than
30 wounded at the Fort Hood military base in Texas.
He is in an intensive care unit at a military hospital near
San Antonio recovering from injuries suffered in the shooting, according to
retired Col. John Galligan, Hasan’s lawyer. Hasan may use the insanity defense
in pleading not guilty, Galligan said on Sunday.
Secondary PTSD, or secondary traumatic stress, is how some
psychoanalysts describe the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral changes that
occur after learning about a traumatic event experienced by someone close, like
Other professionals, however, say the symptoms can be
diagnosed as other afflictions, such as depression.
“PTSD is the official disorder, when you read about
secondary it is referring to, essentially, anyone working with someone with
PTSD,” said Dr. Aaron Jacoby, coordinator for trauma recovery programs at
the Veterans Affairs Maryland Health Care System.
PTSD affects the thinking, feeling and behavior of patients
according to Walter Reed documents. In response to traumatic experiences,
patients may grow numb with symptoms that appear much like depression. There is
no specific category for secondary PTSD listed in the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which prompts some psychiatrists to
claim it is a misdiagnosis.
“Technically in the manual it implies that a person can
get PTSD by hearing about something horrible happening to a loved one,”
said Dr. George Harris, a psychologist in Kansas City, Mo. “It just
doesn’t strike me as reasonable to view someone as having PTSD simply because
they have heard this horrible thing happening to another person.”
But others believe certain groups of mental health
professionals are susceptible to the disorder.
“It is certainly more common in individuals who are new
to psychotherapy and less common among veterans (psychotherapists),”
Jacoby said. “People who treat combat veterans are more likely to be
affected than other populations because of the frequency of traumas they
confront. Often they see multiple patients with traumas every day. The closer
they are, the realer the trauma is.”
Harris agrees the question is valid but wonders why the
countless other mental health practitioners who treat first responders,
including firefighters and police, don’t experience PTSD.
“My view is it dilutes the diagnosis, and I think there
are lots of other things that describe a person’s reaction to hearing about a
horrible event,” Harris said. “In soldiers’ minds it is demeaning to
lay this diagnosis on someone who has simply heard of these horrific
Brian Bride, a professor at the University of Georgia, has
studied the disorder in social workers and said he believes it could be even
more prevalent in military mental health professionals.
“What is really at issue is not the quantity of
patients but the level of exposure to the patient’s trauma,” Bride said.
“That is, someone who has a lot of PTSD patients, but does not delve into
the traumas in some form has less risk than someone with half the number of
PTSD patients, but hears much more about the traumas.”
Bride said more work has to be done to increase awareness of
the secondary disorder. In a study published by Social Work journal in January
2007, Bride found 15 percent of social workers met the diagnostic criteria for
PTSD. A 2008 study by Geisinger Health System found instances of secondary
trauma in professionals who treated Sept. 11, 2001, victims.
“I do not think it is being diagnosed nor treated
adequately,” Bride said. “There is a great need to increase awareness
of STS among health care professionals and support the adoption of self-care
and organizational prevention strategies.”
There is a support system to prevent this disorder from
affecting health care professionals at the VA Maryland Health Care System,
according to Jacoby. Organized retreats, consultation and critical stress
debriefings are offered to caregivers who regularly see patients with PTSD.
“We as clinicians realize that when we are working with
people with trauma, at end of the day, we need to be as mentally healthy as can
be,” Jacoby said. “If it were to occur, I would refer staff members
to receive their own therapy, same as any disorder. I’ve never had to do
Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.