Dr. Alan Peterson explains the nuances of PTSD in U.S. veterans

In a post-9/11 world, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a household name. The disorder is discussed on television, in news, within books, during movies — everywhere. However, despite the exposure, psychologists still understand little about the condition — a fact that Dr. Alan Peterson is determined to change.

Peterson, a professor in the UTSA department of psychology and director of both the STRONG STAR Consortium and the Consortium to Alleviate PTSD, gave a lecture on PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) to a group of UTSA students and faculty on Sept. 23. Peterson first pointed out the lack of PTSD research during his time deployed to Iraq and has since worked almost non-stop to fill that absence.

According to Peterson, diagnoses of PTSD were rare before 9/11. “It’d been over 30 years since the last big war. There just wasn’t any real expertise in the field yet,” Peterson explained. “It’s all about the blast — that’s where it all starts.”

Peterson spent the majority of the lecture explaining the research results conducted by STRONG STAR under his guidance. Funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, STRONG STAR — which Peterson wrote the original grant proposal for — is currently the world’s largest research consortium.

As director, Peterson manages more than 30 ongoing studies that look into the prevention and treatment
of combat-related PTSD.

“What came out of these studies,” he summarized, “was that it became apparent that blast trauma is the main cause of almost everything: PTSD, traumatic brain injury, amputations, burns. Most medical conditions (military personnel) are suffering from coming out of these wars is related to blast injury.” According to Peterson, blast explosions account for over 80 percent of all combat-related injuries.

“We’re really doing the first big research study to evaluate how well the treatments that work with civilians will carry over to military personal,” Peterson said in regards to potential treatments for blast trauma PTSD.

“The most successful treatment right now for non-military PTSD is what’s called cognitive behavioral therapy – talk-type therapy, like counseling. But there are specific ways it needs to be done.” One method is evidence-based psychotherapy, which combines medications with regular counseling sessions.

To help further research in the area, Peterson worked with UTSA’s department of psychology to create a new Ph.D. program with an emphasis in military health psychology.

“It’s very interesting, and it’s certainly informing people about the issues that are confronting us with brain injury cases,” said Dr. George Perry, UTSA’s dean of the College of Sciences. “There’s probably more people affected by brain injury than there are people with Alzheimer’s disease, so I think Dr. Peterson’s research is of extreme importance right now.”

“Working with individuals who’ve been exposed to horrific things, and helping change the direction of their lives so they can move on, have probably been the most rewarding part of my work,” Peterson said. “I’ve seen people make tremendous changes in their lives. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s always been worth it.”