Arrested information-processing – an illegitimate justification for toxic treatment

Both of the main treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma focused cognitive behaviour therapy (T-FCBT) and eye movement desensitisation  reprocessing (EMDR), postulate that arrested information processing lies at the heart of debility post trauma. The therapeutic task is therefore to elaborate the traumatic memory. But does the model stand up to close scrutiny?

  • What does arrested information-processing look like?
  • Is forced engagement with the traumatic memory, the only way forward, given that most people do not want to think about something horrible?
  • Is there evidence beyond reasonable doubt that a noxious treatment for post-trauma debility is necessary?
  • What happens when arrested information-processing is put under the microscope? 

Consider that you have produced a one page  document on your computer. You try to print it out, alas nothing! Various arrested information processing ‘bugs’ may have come  into play. You may have forgotten to refill the paper tray. The cable at the rear of the computer may have become disconnected.  With age the printer might now demand that it be a) unplugged from the mains b) the printer key depressed for 20 seconds with the paper tray out and c) the printer plugged in and the printer key depressed again. There would thus be very clear and demonstrable reasons as to why you have no printout.

 

But when a person is debilitated following an extreme trauma there is no such clarity. It may be asserted the extreme trauma caused the debility, but all that is known is is that debility followed a trauma. The temporal sequence does not necessarily signify causation. A failure by trauma focussed clinicians to specify the mechanisms by which arrested information-processing occurs, casts doubt that it has been operative. The injunction for trauma focused clinicians is to ‘elaborate’ the traumatic memory. Staying with the analogy, no amount of changing the contents of the one page document (elaboration) will result in a printout. Arrested information processing, in the context of trauma, sates intellectual curiosity with abstractions but is bereft of any actual detail. The evidential bar for the concept is set so low that it is possible to walk over it.

Just as the one page document is a creation, so to is the traumatic memory, but it differs in that every time the latter is retrieved it is different. It is rather like Alice in the above observation. 

Any information encoded at the time of the trauma may be properly regarded as syntactic information, i.e information without any meaning – rather like being sent a text message that consisted simply of a number of symbols. A friend may at a later point give a meaning to the symbols but you may nevertheless conclude that it was a meaningless text. Importantly the meaning is subject to negotiation and is not located in a special place in the trauma itself. Plantinga, Oxford University Press (2011) says that it is essentially impossible to see how a material structure or event could have content in the way that a belief does.This takes us to a new and more useful model based on mental time travel [Scott (2022) Personalising Trauma Treatment: reframing and Reimagining. London: Routledge https://www.amazon.co.uk/Personalising-Trauma-Treatment-Reframing-Reimagining/dp/1032013125/ref=sr_1_1 crid=2T4OARM3EH4TB&keywords=personalising+trauma+treatment+paperback&qid=1653757479&sprefix=%2Caps%2C73&sr=8-1 ] and the axiom that it is not the trauma per se that is important but what it is taken to mean for today, that has significance.

The Utility and Effectiveness of Trauma-Focussed Interventions

It is true that with trauma focussed CBT or EMDR about 50% of those undergoing these treatments in randomised controlled trials fully recover from PTSD. However compliance with trauma-focussed  protocols in routine practise is problematic, with only a half of patients loosely compliant with the homework [Scott and Stradling (1997)  Journal of Traumatic Stress. Over 60% of veterans dropping out of trauma focussed interventions [ Maguen et al (2019) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2019.02.027]. Not buying into the treatment rationale for trauma focussed work is the biggest predictor of non-completion [ Kehle-Forbes et al (2022)https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2022.104123].

it is possible that to the extent that these treatments do work they do so for reasons other than achieving ‘full processing of the traumatic memory’. More plausibly as a side effect of these interventions they learn experientially that the ‘war zone’ map of their personal world that they have employed since the trauma, leads nowhere and they revert to a pre-trauma map. Oftentimes the prime concern of a victim is not what did happen but what could/should have happened i.e it is not the trauma per se.

Resistance To A Paradigm Shift

Rather than re-examine the trauma-focussed paradigm the likelihood is that the movers and shakers in the CBT/EMDR world will either resolutely ignore this challenge or concentrate their firepower on the inappropriateness of the computer/printer analogy, without suggesting a more appropriate analogy. An essentially fundamentalist approach is taken to the potency of arrested-information processing. Heretics should at best be marginalised.

Dr Mike Scott

A Gentler Approach to Fergal Keane’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Last night the BBC broadcast the experiences of its’ intrepid reporter, Fergal Keane, in battling with PTSD and alcohol. He has performed an invaluable service in normalising responses to extreme trauma. In the program he described being sometimes wiped out for days after a session of EMDR. Fergal showed great fortitude in continuing with such treatment. But it raises the question the question of how many others would persist? Particularly if they were not attending an exalted Private Hospital. 

Unfortunately the treatment that he had had  is predicated on the assumption that he needs to confront  all the horrors that he experienced in different lands.  Fergal returns to Rwanda and relives the smells and sights of extreme traumas. He feels guilty that he left Rwanda in the first place. Fergal is annoyed with himself that he left a hotspot in Ukraine at the beginning of the current conflict. In the program he is reunited with an adult from Rwanda who as an older child escaped under a blanket hidden by younger children. He is amazed that  she has not suffered his debility. De facto she has not seen her traumatic memory as relevant to her day-to-day functioning in the UK, but works in mental health. The key point I make in ‘Personalising Trauma Treatment: Reframing and Reimagining’ Routledge 2022 is that traumas only need to be confronted in the sense of addressing their relevance for today. Thus this lady might well write to Priti Patel about the obscenity of routing refugees to Rwanda, whilst not letting the traumatic memory be her central window through which she views the world.

In the programme the EMDR therapist is seen trying to replace Fergal’s thought ‘I am going to die’ whilst under a mortar attack in Lebanon, with the installation of a positive thought ‘I survived’. But this replacement is unnecessary, more parsimoniously it could  have been pointed out that he made a negative prediction and was wrong and may have developed a penchant for making negative predictions that turn out to be wrong. He would be advised to have second thoughts when he makes negative predictions or damns himself.  Fergal appears to believe that he has to be successful in his endeavours encountering horrors rather than just do what he can. He berates himself  for returning to war zones but I think he’s simply trying to ensure that horrors don’t have the last word – a noble task if ever there was one!

The programme featured groups for survivors and whilst they are useful, groups to resolve PTSD appear not to be effective. Interestingly one group member highlighted the problem with a sequential approach to PTSD treatment, an insistence that drink problems is sorted 1st before PTSD. People want treatment for all their conditions now. 

 

Dr Mike Scott

‘Intensive Care PTSD’

this was the banner  headline on the BBC News today, January 13th 2021. It followed the announcement of a study by Prof Neil Greenberg, which revealed that staff had been ‘traumatised’ by the first wave of the pandemic. This in turn led for Paul Farmer Chief executive of MIND to call for ‘the right support at the right time’ on BBC radio 4 today. The Government has promised an extra £15 million so that extra support can be given.  But what sort of support?

In the press release accompanying publication of his study in the journal Occupational Medicine, Professor Greenberg notes ‘Further work is needed to better understand the real level of clinical need amongst ICU staff as self-report questionnaires can overestimate the rate of clinically relevant mental health symptoms’. His study was based on a web survey of ICU staff about half of whom responded, about half whom met the ‘threshold’ for PTSD, severe anxiety or problem drinking. There is a clear need to go beyond self-report measures.

I am currently writing a book ‘Personalising Trauma Treatment: reframing and reimagining’ to be published by Routledge. In this work I suggest that the initial conversation with trauma victims   should include ‘Gateway Diagnostic Interview Questions’ , with regard to Covid an appropriate subset would be:

Depression (evidence that at least one of the answers to the following questions is in the affirmative)

1. During the past month have you often been bothered by feeling, depressed or hopeless?

2. During the past month have you often been bothered by little interest or pleasure in doing things?

 

Panic Disorder

1. Do you have unexpected panic attacks, a sudden rush of intense fear or anxiety?

2. Do you avoid situations in which the panic attacks might occur?

 

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

In your life, have you ever had any experience that was so frightening, horrible or upsetting that, in the past month, you

1. Have had nightmares about it or thought about it when you did not want to?

2. Tried hard not to think about it or went out of your way to avoid situations that reminded you of it?

3. Were constantly on guard, watchful, or easily startled?

4. Felt numb or detached from others, activities, or your surroundings?

5. Felt guilty or unable to stop blaming yourself or others for the event(s) or any problems the events may have caused?

Evidence that at least three of the answers to the symptom questions above are in the affirmative

Alcohol Dependence (evidence is that the response to the first three of the following questions is in the affirmative)

1. Have you felt you should cut down on your alcohol/drug?

2. Have people got annoyed with you about your drinking/drug taking?

3. Have you felt guilty about your drinking/drug use?

4. Do you drink/use drugs before midday?

Asking GDIQ questions encourages the person to furnish possible examples of the impact of the symptom on their life, so that they feel listened to. Reference can then be made to other  diagnostic symptoms for the particular disorder, to tease out whether there are sufficient impairing symptoms for that disorder, to merit that diagnostic label.  Use of GDIQ’s is part of a conversation, it is not a rapid fire interrogation or checklist. As a supplement to the GDIQ people can be asked whether this is something that they want help with, as they might not want to verbalise that they want to sort the problem out themselves, but are too polite to express this. 

The NICE recommended treatments are diagnosis specific, thus there is a recommendation of trauma focussed CBT for PTSD. But those traumatised by Covid are likely to find it toxic to be pushed to describe in graphic detail the horrors encountered. In my book I argue that this is unnecessary, rather that what is of key importance is to assess what the person takes their memory of being in ICU means about today. It is not the event that causes PTSD but the mental time travel to the worse period and the significance given to it  for today. This approach  is much less challenging for whoever is  accompanying the effected medical staff and family/friends who have seen horrors.

 

Dr Mike Scott

Unnecessary Treatment Is The Rule In IAPT – Due Diligence?

 

The UK Government, Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAP) only uses psychometric test screening measures  to assess clients, most commonly the  PHQ9 ( a measure of the severity of depression) and GAD7 (a measure of the severity of generalised anxiety disorder), but other measures are advised for other disorders, such as the PCL-5 for PTSD. A study by Zimmerman and Matia (2001) [The Psychiatric Diagnostic Screening Questionnaire: development, reliability and validity. Comprehensive psychiatry, 42(3), 175–189. https://doi.org/10.1053/comp.2001.23126 ] showed that questionnaire measures that reflect DSM criteria have a roughly 90% sensitivity across major depressive disorder, PTSD, panic disorder, social phobia and GAD, i.e it correctly identifies 9 out of 10 of those who do have one of these disorders. But it identifies only about 60% (specificity) of those who do not have the disorder and for GAD only 50%.  However many more people do not have a particular disorder than have one, leading to unnecessary treatment for many. The National Audit Office should take note of this and re-instate its’ investigation, where is the due diligence with regards to IAPT? £4billion has been given to IAPT!

Depression

In the Zimmerman  and Mattia (2001) study 47.9% of the psychiatric outpatients had major depression. Assuming psychiatric outpatients are a reasonable approximation to the IAPT population, then in a sample of 100 patients approx. 50 would have depression and 50 would not. Of the 50 with depression, 45 would have been correctly identified and treated. However of the 50 who did not have depression only, 30 would have been correctly identified leaving 20 as false positives, candidates for inapropriate treatment. Thus roughly for every two depressed cases appropriately treated one would be inappropriately treated. For depression the appropriate/inappropriate ratio is 2/1 – pretty wasteful.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

In the Zimmerman Mattia Study 17.5% pf the psychiatric outpatients  had GAD. Thus in a sample of 100 patients approx. 18 would have GAD, of whom 16 would have been correctly identified and treated. But 82 would not have GAD but 50% of them would have been regarded as having GAD meaning that 41 would have been inappropiately treated. Thus for GAD the appropriate/inappropriate ratio is 16/41, so that for every one GAD client treated appropriately 2-3 others are treated inappropriately.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

In the Zimmerman and Mattia study 10.5% of the psychiatric outpatients had PTSD. Thus in a sample of 100 clients approx. 11 would have PTSD with 9 being correctly classified and treated. However 89 would not have PTSD of these 62% (55) were correctly classified, meaning that 34 were false positives. Thus the ratio of appropriately treated/ inappropriately treated is approximately 1/4 , for every one treated appropriately 4 are treated inappropriately.

IAPT’s Preposterous Claim On Recovery

Given the ubiquity of unnecessary treatment in IAPT, its’ claim of a 50% recovery rate [IAPT Manual (2019)] is preposterous.  I found a 10% recovery rate Scott (2018) https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318755264, which is much more likely if a body relies simply on a screening instrument.

The Need To Translate Research Methodology Into Routine Practice

Ehlers et al. Trials (2020) 21:355 https://doi.org/10.1186/s13063-020-4176-8 have used the PDSQ to screen for cases of PTSD in their study of therapist assisted treatment for the condition, but have followed the screen up by using a standardised semi-structured interview the SCID to then diagnose PTSD. In this study they have kept a screen in its place and not allowed it free rein as in IAPT.  The IAPT Manual p25 states ‘To ensure that all relevant problems are identified, it is recommended that assessments include systematic screening for each of the conditions that IAPT treats. Standardised commercial screening questionnaire that cover the full range of problems and that can be completed by people before they attend an assessment can be considered ‘ and cites the  PDSQ as an example. But sole use of any screening instrument is very wasteful.

Ehlers et al (2020) have sought to establish whether no more than 4 hours therapist time can make a real world difference to PTSD sufferers lives, a consummation devoutly to be wished, these authors could be well employed helping IAPT get its’ own house in order.

 

Dr Mike Scott

If You Are Assaulted The Government Bodies Will Assault You Again

the Government and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) should be put in the dock for the abuse of the poor.

 I recently came across ‘X’ she was seriously assaulted a few years ago by a group of youths and thought that she would never see her daughter again. For the past 18 months she has been effectively housebound with panic attacks and PTSD. She is unemployed and not eligible for Legal Aid. The CICA told her that she would need a report from a Consultant Psychiatrist or clinical psychologist to stand any chance of reversing their decision not to give her an award. But she did not have the financial resources to secure such a report nor to instruct a solicitor.

The CICA looked at her records and concluded that because she had had a previous post traumatic stress reaction her debility was entirely due to that. By definition PTSD is tied to a clearly specified trauma, and I found that her flashbacks nightmares were entirely of the assault and not of earlier negative life events. Further her significant avoidance of going out only began after the assault. This was corroborated by her GP records and notes from her IAPT therapist. The CICA totally failed to distinguish normal distress in response to negative life events from disorder. The CICA were intent on mis-attributing her ‘PTSD’ to pre-existing difficulties.

‘X’ has found the whole business of mounting an appeal overwhelming and has been re-traumatised by it. She had 8 telephone counselling sessions with IAPT which she said helped  ‘slightly’ in that she learnt breathing exercises for her panic attacks. But she has continued suffering from PTSD, depression, panic disorder and social phobia. IAPT failed to flag up any specific disorder/s. She can’t afford private psychological treatment.

Earlier this week a woman was interviewed incognito on BBC television, she had been raped and had 12 months of counselling with Rape Crisis. She then sought NHS treatment and was told she could not have it because she had already had ‘speciality treatment’. This came after she had already been re-traumatised by the defence Barrister in the rape trial!  I am lost for words to describe this secondary abuse.  It wasn’t clear from the interview which NHS service she had sought help from.

The Government should be put in the dock for not holding the CICA, IAPT and barristers to account.  They   should be challenging their public health  officials who sanction the funding of an IAPT service to the tune of £4 billion and which makes no real world difference to those like ‘X’.

Dr Mike Scott

Focus On The Chief Psychological Complaint And Miss The Boat

 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an example of this – only a fifth of those with PTSD present with it as their principal problem, according to a just published paper by Kiefer et al (2020)  in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders. Most commonly PTSD sufferers present with depression, bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder as the principal diagnoses. These are so likely to absorb a clinicians attention that the PTSD does not get a look in. But it is likely to be one of the elephants in the room that sabotages therapeutic efforts. If working in IAPT the hapless clinician, post the lockdown, is likely to be hauled over the coals for not reaching recovery and/or feels incompetent.  The seeds of the problem is that IAPT clinicians are not trained to make reliable diagnoses. But unreliable diagnosis is not confined to IAPT, it is the norm, bolstered by the dominance of an unthinking anti-psychiatry stance amongst psychological therapists. The banner of ‘Formulation Rules’ is unfurled and brandished but without any evidence that it makes a real world difference to client’s lives. 

Whilst the starting point for all psychological therapies is the client’s chief complaint, in it’s distilling there is no limit to the range of information considered pertinent (no control for information variance), nor of the operational criteria for deciding whether a particular problem is simply a normal reaction to an abnormal situation or something more (no control for criterion variance). Appeal can be made to a clinician’s formulation, but there are likely as many formulations as clinicians. By default the formulation of the local powerholder, whether it be the supervisor, manager or clinician will likely hold sway. The client will rarely have the wherewithal to articulate their definition of the situation and certainly not to make it stick.

Consider a person referred with ?chronic fatigue syndrome, the psychological therapist will certainly find evidence to support this because a) they will rarely be aware of differing criteria for CFS and b) they will find a symptom to support the diagnosis such as fatigue. Here we have the operation of a confirmation bias seeking only information that supports the original hypothesis. Without considering what body of evidence would be needed to refute hypothesis e.g diagnostic entities such as depression that have some symptom overlap with disorders such as CFS and/or an as yet undiscovered entity that might explain the fatigue e.g the development of multiple sclerosis.

Communications to sources of referral are written in the form ‘it was agreed that course x would be best’ but as the client does not understand how course x, differs from courses y and z, much less why one course would be better than another in their circumstances, it is doublespeak for the Agency doing what it wants.

Having elicited what appears to be the chief complaint, almost anything can be deemed appropriate. Today I read a book [ The Well Gardened  Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith a psychiatrist] review on horticultural therapy, in which the reviewer asked  why such a therapy is not a standard treatment for anxiety and depression? Such an approach was regarded as an enlightened response to the plight of  ‘shell shocked’ soldiers returning from the First World War. The short answer to the question is that there is no evidence it returns people to their former selves i.e that it makes for recovery, as opposed to makes them feel better for a time.

How did we reach the point were de facto we have therapy without any boundaries? In my view it is a product of jettisoning the very notion of diagnosis and treatment. There is almost universal support amongst psychological therapists for an anti-psychiatrist stance see ‘Drop The Diagnosis! ‘ by Jo Watson (2019) and Dalgleish’s call http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ccp0000482 for a hard trans diagnostic approach  and it is used to justify popular offerings such as Solution Focussed Therapy. But we are short of any independent evidence that the talking therapies without reliable diagnosis make a real world difference.

Dr Mike Scott

Getting Back To Me Post Trauma

this was the title of a one day workshop that I gave on Wednesday        March 4th 2020  to the Chester and North Wales Branch of BABCP. My video commentary on the day can be accessed here

https://vimeo.com/user94707142/download/397657814/67ae027afe

and the Powerpoint presentation can be accessed here 

The theoretical background to this new approach to a 1st line treatment for PTSD is described in my paper PTSD An Alternative Paradigm ptsd an alternative paradigm.

any comments gratefully received.

 

Dr Mike Scott

‘PTSD – Swap War Zone Glasses For Specs Used A Week Before Trauma’

that’s one of the clinical implications of my just published paper ptsd an alternative paradigm. On March 4th I am giving a One Day Workshop titled ‘Getting Back To Me Post Trauma’, elaborating further  on the clinical implications of this work. The day is organised by Chester and North Wales BABCP at Chester Rugby Club.

My work addresses the problem that with cognitive processing therapy, 42% of people drop out of treatment. Most between sessions 2 and 5. In the traditional CPT protocol homework at sessions 3 and 4 involves clients writing detailed accounts of their trauma, which often does not go down well. I also found that in exposure therapy barely half comply with listening to a trauma tape. I argue that the case for trauma focussed interventions is not proven and there is a more user friendly way of going about things.

 

Dr Mike Scott

  

‘Go To Hell, If You Don’t Jump Through Our Hoops’

that’s the take home message absorbed by a partner of an ex-soldier with PTSD, broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour yesterday, available as a podcast . Her partner was referred by his GP several times for psychological treatment, but he didn’t go though the ‘opt in’ procedure (ringing up and agreeing a telephone assessment) so in the words of the agency the referral was not ‘activated’.  He then developed a psychosis when she developed cancer and there was a further episode of psychosis before treatment got underway. But it doesn’t stop there she was never involved in the treatment despite that they could no longer sleep in the same bed because of his nightmares and his response. The treating clinicians it seems are unaware that social support is the biggest predictor of recovery from PTSD and that the disorder has a devastating impact on relationships.   Fortunately she got some help for herself from an online forum for partners of those with PTSD run by combat stress.

Clinical Commissioning Groups need to be made aware of what goes on in the mental health services they fund to the tune of £6-7 billion a year, with over £300 million being spent on IAPT each year, this amounts to billions of £’s being spent on IAPT since its’ inception, it is surely criminal that this has taken place without any independent evaluation of outcome.  

The ‘go to hell approach’ is unfortunately not confined to the process of engagement with the services, it also features in treatment – a client of mine with PTSD was told in an IAPT service the focus of the session was trauma focussed CBT/EMDR but he was concerned to talk about the devastating impact the Manchester bombing had had on his niece and he was given no such opportunity to discuss these concerns, the trauma focussed treatment proceeded relentlessly, all to no avail. 

I think it would be excellent if people sent the Radio 4 broadcast to their Clinical Commissioning Groups, the links can be accessed below, asking that they critically appraise the operation of IAPT.  Both Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live are making more broadcasts on these matters in the coming weeks and it would be great if people could disseminate the material as far as possible

https://www.england.nhs.uk/ccg-details/

Dr Mike Scott

 

 

The Treatment of PTSD Has Been Destabilised……

by the advent of stabilisation groups and overvaluing trauma focussed CBT. In the wake of an extreme trauma IAPT clients can be referred to stabilisation groups. Such groups will often meet weekly for 6 weeks and participants are encouraged not to talk about the trauma but rather about its effects. However there is no empirical evidence that such groups make a real world difference. In support of such groups the work of Judith Herman  [ Group Trauma Treatment in Early Recovery (2019) Guilford Press] is often cited, her groups are for those in ‘early recovery’ but there is no specification of what is meant by ‘early’ or from what the person is recovering. IAPT’s assessment process is as vague as Judith Herman’s.

 

Sienna, a Civil Servant had a horrendous rta and after an IAPT telephone assessment was referred to a stabilisation group, she assumed it was for PTSD. The group made no difference to her functioning, nor did the 3 individual sessions of trauma focusssed cbt afterwards. Sienna dropped out of the TFCBT because it was too painful but she never did have PTSD!

 

But the problems in the treatment of PTSD are not confined to IAPT. Although trauma focussed CBT (TFCBT) is the NICE recommended treatment for PTSD, inspection of the randomised controlled trials reveals that on average only one in two people recover. NICE’s guidance can be overvalued, with clinicians continuing to pursue TFCBT when it is clearly not working. With a parallel insistence that they confront the scene of their trauma. Client’s are often more pragmatic thinking that they could get by without re-exposure to the scene, but with the therapist urging the client not to be ‘defeated’. Given the power imbalance the client is unlikely to be able to effectively voice their opinion. There is a pressing need for creative solutions when TFCBT doesn’t work and for a re-examination of the theory on which the latter rests.

I am proposing to run a ‘Getting Back To Me’ workshop next year.

 

Dr Mike Scott