What to Expect During the PTSD Diagnosis Process

Proper Treatment of PTSD Requires a Proper Diagnosis

Man talking to his psychologist about PTSD
What is the process of diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?. nullplus/Getty Images

How is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Diagnosed?

Many people are unfamiliar with the procedures involved in making a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. In fact, a diagnosis of PTSD is sometimes thrown around lightly, while a careful and precise diagnosis is needed in order to help people get the proper treatment. And proper treatment, in turn, is important in helping people cope with this often life-limiting diagnosis.

If you have experienced a traumatic event and think that you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we can't stress enough how very important it is that you meet with a mental health professional. Only such a professional can diagnose you with PTSD, and guide you in the direction you need to work through, and past, this difficult condition. In other words, taking the time to get the best help possible in making a clear diagnosis will help ensure you get the best treatment possible to recover, and live a healthy and fulfilling life beyond the diagnosis.

The PTSD Diagnosis Procedure

There are several steps in making a diagnosis of PTSD. Let's take a look a some of these by breaking them down into doable pieces, as one of the most difficult parts of making a diagnosis is just getting started.

Find a Mental Health Professional Who Cares for People with PTSD

If you believe you may have PTSD, your first step should be to make an appointment with a mental health professional who treats people with PTSD.

If you don't have a therapist, here are a few tips for finding a PTSD therapist online. There are several different types of professionals who can provide counseling for PTSD. Since the topics of discussion if you have PTSD can bring many difficult feelings to the surface, it's important to find a therapist that you trust.

Here are a few things to look for in a good therapist.

Interview Evaluating PTSD Criteria

A mental health professional or clinician will most often conduct an interview with you to determine whether or not you meet the criteria for PTSD. This interview generally involves specific questions that explore whether you have the different symptoms of PTSD. The clinician may also inquire as to the frequency and intensity with which you experience particular symptoms.

History of Psychological Concerns and Present Symptoms

The clinician may also conduct an interview with you to determine whether or not you have any other psychological disorders, such as past/current depression, a substance use disorder, another anxiety disorder or a personality disorder like borderline personality disorder. The clinician may also ask about any family history of mental illness.

In addition to the interview, you may be asked to fill out questionnaires that get at symptoms of depression or how you tend to cope with stress.

Some people find it irritating to be asked so many questions about depression when their goal is to find out if they have PTSD or get help for PTSD. Understand that this is very important, as PTSD may occur along with depression, a history of depression can increase your risk of PTSD, and PTSD can increase your risk of depression. Keep in mind that your goal is to feel better, and following these steps offers you the best chance of getting there.

Physical Evaluation

Finally, a clinician may also want you to meet with a doctor to get a physical. The purpose of this is to rule out any physical condition that is contributing to your symptoms. This can go both ways, as physical symptoms can accentuate PTSD, but PTSD may be manifested in physical symptoms as well.

The Process Can Take Time

The interview will likely span across several meetings. To get the most accurate diagnosis, it is important for the clinician to ask a lot of questions. It is also important for you to be as honest as possible in answering those questions.

Common Concerns About the Process - "Re-Living" Trauma

Some people may be concerned about having to "re-live" their trauma during the interview. Clinicians are very much aware of this concern. To make a diagnosis of PTSD, the clinician does need to know some facts about the traumatic event. However, clinicians generally will not require you to go into explicit detail about what happened during your traumatic event.

Instead, they will ask you about the type of event that occurred (for example, a natural disaster, rape, or combat situation). They will also ask about your emotional response during and after the event. There are a few basic facts about the event which can be very helpful for the therapist to know, including:

  • How old were you when it happened?
  • Was it one event or multiple events?
  • Were there any other people involved?
  • Did the event happen directly to you, or rather, did you witness it happening?

It is important that you communicate with your clinician. If you feel as though you are unable to discuss the event or if you feel as though it is making you too upset to do so, definitely tell the person you are meeting with. The clinician's goal is not to overly distress you. There can be fine balance between a therapist learning enough to properly help you, and, at the same time, limiting discussion of topics you would rather not talk about. The only way that your therapist can understand where this line happens to be for you, is to be open and frank about how you are feeling.

The clinician may also inquire about other past traumatic events you have experienced. This is important information in that it has been found that having multiple traumatic events may increase risk for the development of PTSD. Again, your therapist likely will not ask you to go into detail about these events, but they will ask you some basic questions about them in order to best know how to help you.

Finally, if you are in a relationship with someone, the clinician may ask to speak to your partner. Knowing how someone else perceives your symptoms or how you've changed as a result of a traumatic experience can be invaluable information. However, it is completely up to you as to whether or not your clinician speaks to your partner. The information that you provide in session is completely confidential.

Bottom Line on the PTSD Diagnostic Process

In the end, the most important thing for you to remember is that to make the best diagnosis, you must communicate with your clinician and be honest about what you are experiencing. A good and accurate diagnosis leads to more effective PTSD treatment, which is the goal for both you and your therapist.

Sources:

Bellet, B., McDevitt-Murphy, M., Thomas, D., and M. Luciano. The Utility of Personality Assessment Inventory in the Assessment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in OEF/OIF/OND Veterans. Assessment. 2017 Jan 1. (Epub ahead of print).

Milligan-Saville, J., Paterson, H., Harkness, E. et al. The Amplification of Common Somatic Symptoms by Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Firefighters. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 2017 Mar 8. (Epub ahead of print).

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