Focus on symptoms over stories is detrimental to separated families


The horrors faced by migrant families forced to separate under the new U.S. “zero tolerance” policy continue to unfold. Tragic emblems of this policy include tapes of crying children and the reported suicide of a father who had been separated from his children.

A federal judge had issued an injunction requiring the reunification of thousands of families by July 26. Despite that deadline, hundreds of adults are no longer in the United States, and hundreds of children are scattered in shelters across the country.

In response to those events, mental health and medical organizations have released powerful statements. The American Psychological Association stated: “The administration’s policy ... is not only needless and cruel, it threatens the mental and physical health of both the children and their caregivers.” The American Medical Association issued a call asserting that separating children from their parents “will do great harm” and “create negative health impacts that will last an individual’s entire lifespan.” Meanwhile, the American Psychiatric Association’s president, Altha J. Stewart, MD, released a statement affirming that “any forced separation is highly stressful for children and can cause lifelong trauma, as well as an increased risk of other mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder.”

As forensic experts who testify about the mental well-being of immigration detainees, we applaud those powerful and unambiguous messages from the leaders in our fields. Yet, their statements also underscore the limitations of our diagnostic models: Our field is caught in the difficult position of either applying ill-fitting diagnostic labels or overpathologizing a normal reaction to horrific circumstances. While not applying diagnoses potentially minimizes the enormous psychological burden of separation, diagnosing depression or PTSD as catchalls for suffering incorrectly defines the experience of many survivors of ongoing trauma.

Dr. Francesca Lehman, a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist in San Diego

Dr. Francesca Lehman

Currently, most providers, in trying to communicate the effects of ongoing trauma, rely on the diagnoses of depression or PTSD. Both of these diagnoses, however, are problematic. The diagnosis of major depressive disorder, for example, is useful in communicating a loss of hope, and the inability to enjoy pleasurable things. However, depression is an episodic illness, often part of a larger chronic disorder.1 Depression often has a genetic-hereditary component. On the other hand, children suffering from childhood traumas often present lifelong and wide-ranging problems, which may be triggered by reminders but are not episodic. For example, children experiencing parental separation have difficulty forming attachments, which, in turn, leads to subsequent difficulty forming meaningful interpersonal relationships.

The diagnosis of PTSD is useful in communicating a myriad of possible symptoms, which may accompany the trauma. However, PTSD implies a traumatic event as described in criteria A of the DSM-5: “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” As such, PTSD poorly encompasses the wide array of smaller yet repetitive traumas experienced by victims of ongoing trauma, such as those youth separated from their parents at the U.S. border. Furthermore, PTSD is a disorder with specific symptoms that, based on a vast body of research,2,3 inadequately describes the multitude of interpersonal, psychological, and physical consequences associated with the type of trauma caused by family separations.

Our understanding of the long-term sequelae of childhood trauma has been greatly influenced by the adverse childhood experiences (ACE) study. The ACE study, one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being, collected the life histories of more than 17,000 patients in a collaborative effort between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic.

The ACE study identified 10 forms of childhood trauma, including: abuse, neglect, abandonment, household dysfunction, and exposure to violence, that were strongly associated with negative psychological outcomes such as depression, suicide attempts, and engagement in high-risk behaviors, as well as significant medical consequences, including higher incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Ultimately, having four or more ACEs was associated with early death.

In response to the emerging body of research on childhood trauma, various terms, including complex trauma, type-II trauma, and complex PTSD, have entered our professional lexicon as a means of communicating the wide-ranging consequences of developmental trauma. On the one hand, the less defined and rigid nature of these terms permits mental health providers to develop a rich narrative of a patient’s background, encompassing the patient’s behavior, character, and symptoms. However, the absence of formal terminology also has its drawbacks: Courts and juries have grown accustomed to diagnoses, labels, and syndromes. Most forensic mental health providers who testify about developmental trauma in court can predict the question: “So doctor, you are saying that the individual’s presentation is not severe enough to be considered PTSD, am I correct?” Disorders justify treatment, can explain disability, and warrant empathy; concomitantly, “complex trauma” runs the risk of being considered an academic explanation for trauma victims’ lifelong problems, rather than a societal failure that merits care.

Dr. Nicolas Badre, a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego and an expert in correctional mental health. He holds teaching positions at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of San Diego.

Dr. Nicolas Badre

Recognizing the limitations of our current diagnoses, the forthcoming update to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) will add a new category: complex PTSD. The ICD-11 will attempt to widen the concept of trauma to include “conditions of prolonged adversity, in the form of sustained, repeated, or multiple forms of traumatic exposure.” Trauma exposure examples include genocide campaigns, childhood sexual abuse, child soldiering, severe domestic violence, torture, or slavery. The ICD-11 also expands our understanding of the consequences of trauma to include “affective dysregulation,” “negative self-concept,” and “disturbances in relationships” as part of a concept called “disturbances in self-organization.” Those are important steps in acknowledging the consequences of different forms of trauma as well as noticing a richer array of damages from those incidents.4

While the World Health Organization’s latest iteration of the ICD takes an important step in widening the scope of our diagnostic tools, we are cognizant that our field’s obsessional search for diagnoses, labels, and nomenclature reinforces a detrimental focus on symptoms over stories. However, as forensic mental health providers, we also are keenly aware that a failure to adopt common definitions impedes forensic evaluations, patient advocacy, public policy, and most importantly, patient care.

In the end, we have trained society to understand pathology through narrow lenses, and therefore, in the face of tragic events such as family separations, we need the appropriate language to clearly define and communicate the experiences of our patients. So, despite the limitations of labels, let’s be encouraged by the World Health Organization’s efforts and continue in that direction.

Dr. Badre is a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego and an expert in correctional mental health. He holds teaching positions at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of San Diego. He teaches medical education, psychopharmacology ethics in psychiatry, and correctional care. Dr. Badre can be reached at his website, Dr. Lehman is a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist in San Diego. Her practice consists of conducting forensic psychological evaluations for the courts with children, adolescents, and adults. Dr. Lehman has been qualified as an expert witness in California as well as in the federal courts. She previously was a supervisor at Sharper Future, a forensic rehabilitation program, and previously served as an adjunct faculty member at Alliant International University, San Diego. Dr. Lehman can be reached at


1. Am J Psychiatry. 2000 Sep;157(9):1501-4.

2. Psychiatr Ann. 2005;35(5):390-8.

3. Psychiatr Ann. 2005;35(5):401-8.

4. Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2018 Jan 15. doi: 10.1080/20008198.2017.1418103.

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