PTSD in Active Combat Soldiers: To Treat or Not to Treat

Wangelin, Bethany C.; Tuerk, Peter W.
June 2014
Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics;Jun2014, Vol. 42 Issue 2, p161
Academic Journal
In this paper, we consider ethical issues related to the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in combat zones, via exposure therapy. Exposure-oriented interventions are the most well-researched behavioral treatments for PTSD, and rigorous studies across contexts, populations, and research groups provide robust evidence that exposure therapy for PTSD is effective and can be widely disseminated. Clinical procedures for Prolonged Exposure therapy, a manualized exposure-oriented protocol for PTSD, are reviewed, and we illustrate the potential benefits, as well as the potential difficulties, associated with providing this treatment in combat zones. Several ethical considerations are identified: (1) Assuming successful treatment, is it ethical to send individuals with a known risk of developing PTSD back into combat? (2) If treatment is unsuccessful in theater (perhaps due to the confounding factor of ongoing danger), could that impact treatment effectiveness for soldiers who attempt therapy again post-deployment? (3) If the military finds combat-zone treatment effective and useful in maintaining an efficient work force, will treatment become mandatory for those diagnosed with PTSD? (4) What unintended consequences might be associated with large-scale dissemination of exposure therapy in or near combat, outside of mental health care infrastructures? (5) How would genetic variations known to be associated with PTSD risk influence decisions regarding who receives treatment or returns to combat? We conclude with a review of the personal and societal costs associated with not providing evidence-based PTSD treatments wherever possible.


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