How Is PTSD Assessed? - PTSD: National Center for PTSD
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PTSD: National Center for PTSD

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How Is PTSD Assessed?

 
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How Is PTSD Assessed?

PTSD is diagnosed by a mental health provider. This may involve several steps, including being assessed. Learn how you can start the process, the types of measures (or assessments) used, and what to expect.

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Photo of Dr. Abigail Angkaw

“You can ask any provider. You can ask your primary care physician. You can even say, 'I'd like to be assessed for PTSD.'”

Dr. Abigail Angkaw

Clinical Psychologist

When we want to know if there is something wrong with our health, we get a medical assessment. For physical health problems, this could include labs (like bloodwork), tests (like an x-ray, scan or biopsy) or a physical exam. For PTSD, an assessment includes answering questions about your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. PTSD is most often diagnosed, or confirmed, by a mental health provider. This can involve several steps.

What Is a PTSD Screen?

To develop PTSD, you must have gone through a traumatic experience, or trauma. If you tell a provider about this type of event, you might be given a screen to see if you could have PTSD. A screen is a very short list of questions about your thoughts, feelings and behaviors since the trauma. The results of the screen do not show whether a person has PTSD. A screen only helps a provider understand if you should be assessed further. Learn about PTSD Screening Day and take a self-screen at any time.

What Can I Expect From an Assessment for PTSD?

If you screen positive for PTSD, or a provider suspects you may have PTSD, you will likely have a more in-depth assessment, The length of a PTSD assessment can vary widely depending on the purpose. While some evaluations may take as little as 15 minutes, a more thorough evaluation takes about 1 to 2 hours. Some PTSD assessments can take longer if information is needed for legal reasons or disability claims.

You can expect to be asked questions about events that may have been traumatic for you. You will be asked about difficulties you may have had since these events. Assessments usually involve sets of questions asked from a list. You may be asked to complete surveys with questions about your thoughts and feelings. Sometimes a provider may ask if it is okay to talk with your spouse, partner or family member about what they have observed. Your provider may also assess physical health problems that may be affected by trauma.

Can I Ask Questions About the Assessment?

No matter what your assessment involves, you should always be able to ask questions in advance. The provider (or assessor) should be able to tell you:

  • What the assessment will include
  • How long the assessment will take
  • How the results of the assessment will be used

You will be in control of how much information you share about any traumas you experienced. You can always ask to take a break if helpful.

You can also ask about the provider's training and experience. For example:

"Can you tell me a little about how you assess PTSD?"

You should feel comfortable with the assessment methods that a provider will use. Providers may use a structured or semi-structured interview, where they ask you a series of questions from a printed document. The provider may also have you fill out a standardized self-report, or questionnaire (survey). A good assessment of PTSD can be done without the use of any special equipment.

"How often do you do PTSD assessments? How long have you been doing PTSD assessments?"

Many providers specialize in assessing and treating people who have experienced trauma. Some providers may also specialize in working with certain kinds of trauma survivors. For example, a provider may work with adult survivors of childhood traumas. You may find a provider who specializes in a different trauma area than what you experienced, or who does not specialize at all.

"What formal training have you had for PTSD assessment?"

If possible, find a provider who has completed training focused on PTSD assessment. If your provider does not specialize in PTSD, you can ask for a referral to someone who does.

What Are Some of the Common Measures Used?

There are 2 main types of measures used in PTSD assessment:

Structured interviews

A structured interview is a standard set of questions that an interviewer asks. Some examples of structured interviews are:

  • Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS). Created by National Center for PTSD staff, the CAPS is one of the most widely used PTSD interviews. The questions ask how often you have PTSD symptoms and how intense they are. The CAPS also asks about other symptoms that commonly occur with PTSD.
  • Structured Clinical Interview for DSM (SCID). The SCID is another widely used interview. The SCID can be used to assess a range of mental health disorders including PTSD.

Self-report questionnaires

A self-report questionnaire is a set of questions, usually printed out, that you are given to answer. This kind of measure often takes less time and can be used to support information from an interview (described above). An example of a common self-report measure is:

  • PTSD Checklist (PCL). The PCL is another widely used measure developed by National Center for PTSD staff. This measure asks about how often you experience each of the PTSD symptoms over a period of time, like a month. Providers may also use this measure to see how your symptoms change over time, such as when you are getting treatment.

Summary

PTSD assessment may begin using a self-screen. However, a more in-depth assessment is required to diagnose PTSD. That assessment will involve an interview with a provider and may also include self-report questionnaires that you complete. You can always ask questions so that you know what to expect. Please see Types of Providers for more information about the types of mental health professionals who diagnose and treat PTSD.

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PTSD Information Voice Mail: (802) 296-6300
Email: ncptsd@va.gov
Also see: VA Mental Health