SA researchers publish biggest PTSD study ever done with active-duty military

PTSD patient says specific therapy used turned his life around

SAN ANTONIO – The biggest post-traumatic stress disorder study ever done with active-duty participants was published Wednesday morning by San Antonio researchers. The study started in 2008 at the South Texas Research Organizational Network Guiding Studies on Trauma and Resilience (STRONG STAR) Consortium, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and based at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

The groundbreaking study was done to help people battle PTSD.

Before and even during his 23 years of Navy service, Hakim Mathis said he laughed all the time.

"I used to be really fun, outgoing," he said.

However, multiple deployments changed that — especially his last one to Afghanistan from 2009-2010.

"Between the shootouts, the different bombings. threats, beheadings — there were so many things that we had seen," Mathis said.

Mathis came back anxiety-ridden and angry. He stopped trusting people and began to seclude himself. He left the service in January 2016 and officially became a veteran. It was then when he decided to get help.

Therapy wasn't working until he found STRONG STAR, a research group dedicated to studying post-traumatic stress. The group designed a type of talk therapy, specifically for PTSD. It's called cognitive processing therapy, or CPT.

"At some point you have to focus on what happened and the impact of the trauma itself to really focus on how the brain may have changed and how the beliefs about yourself and the world may have changed, and to try to reset those," said Dr. Alan Peterson, a professor at the UT Health Science Center.

Peterson put this therapy into a clinical study for the first time with active-duty military. It was held at Fort Hood in 12 sessions over six weeks. The results were promising. Findings showed not only significant reductions in PTSD symptoms, but also in depression and suicidal thinking, all of which were maintained over time.

The study also showed better results in individual therapy versus group therapy. Fifty percent of the people in individual therapy recovered from PTSD. Forty percent of people in group therapy recovered.

Both studies showed high percentages. Plus, researchers following participants for six months after reported symptoms did not come back. While individual CPT was slightly more effective, the research team suggested the group therapy stay an option to make CPT accessible, even when there are a limited number of therapists.

The study was published in the Journal of American Medical Association: Psychiatry.

"This therapy is amazing. It's the best therapy I've ever had," Mathis said. He wasn't part of the study, but he had the exact same type of CPT through STRONG STAR.

Mathis said the therapy finally brought his smile back for good.

"It doesn't make you less of a man or woman to share your feelings and say, 'You know what, I'm going through something right now that's really traumatic and I can get help for it,'" Mathis said.

Mathis asks his peers battling PTSD to give the therapy a chance.

STRONG STAR has five more studies coming up that will use updated versions of the same therapy to try to get even better outcomes. Anyone in the San Antonio or Fort Hood area interested in participating can click here for more details. 


About the Author:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.