It is prudent for clinicians to become familiar with the most commonly diagnosed disorders among trauma and torture survivors and to understand that it is not uncommon for more than one mental disorder to be present as there is considerable co-morbidity among trauma-related mental disorders. The two most common classification systems are the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Health Related Problems (ICD-10) Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association-Edition IV (DSM-IV). Non-mental health clinicians such as internists and general practitioners who perform evaluations of torture survivors should be familiar with the common psychological responses to torture and be able to describe their clinical findings. They should be prepared to offer a psychiatric diagnosis if the case is not complicated. A psychiatrist or psychologist skilled in the differential diagnosis of mental disorders related to severe trauma will be needed for particularly emotional individuals, cases involving multiple symptoms or atypical symptom complexes, psychosis, or in cases presenting confusing clinical pictures.
It is important to note that the association between torture and both PTSD and depression has become very strong in the minds of health providers, immigration courts and the informed lay public. This has created the mistaken and simplistic impression that PTSD and depression are the main psychological consequences of torture. Torture-related mental disorders are not limited to depression and PTSD and evaluators must have comprehensive knowledge of the most frequent diagnostic classifications among trauma and torture survivors. In this sense, a detailed evaluation is always very important. Overemphasising PTSD and depression criteria might result in missing other possible diagnoses and reinforcing the simplistic notion that the psychological evidence of torture can be reduced to the presence or absence of PTSD and depression. A wide range of diagnostic considerations are provided below and ICD-10 diagnostic criteria are included in the Appendix II at the end of this Module.
The diagnosis most commonly associated with torture is Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Typical symptoms of PTSD include re-experiencing the trauma, avoidance and emotional numbing, and hyperarousal. Re-experiencing can take several forms: intrusive memories, flashbacks (the subjective sense that the traumatic event is happening all over again), recurrent nightmares, and distress at exposure to cues that symbolize or resemble the trauma. Avoidance and emotional numbing include avoidance of thoughts, conversations, activities, places or people that arouse recollection of the trauma, feelings of detachment and estrangement from others, inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma, and a foreshortened sense of the future. Symptoms of hyperarousal include difficulty falling or staying asleep, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, and exaggerated startle response.
Depressive states are very common among survivors of torture. Depressive disorders may occur as a single episode or be recurrent. They can present with or without psychotic features. Symptoms of Major Depression include depressed mood, anhedonia (markedly diminished interest or pleasure in activities), appetite disturbance, insomnia or hypersomnia, psychomotor agitation or retardation, fatigue and loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness and excessive guilt, difficulty concentrating, and thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, or suicide attempts.
A survivor of severe trauma such as torture may experience dissociation or depersonalisation. Dissociation is a disruption in the integration of consciousness, self-perception, memory and actions. A person may be cut off or unaware of certain actions or may feel split in two and feel as if observing him or herself from a distance. Depersonalisation is feeling detached from oneself or one’s body.
Somatic symptoms such as pain and headache and other physical complaints, with or without objective findings, are common problems among torture victims. Pain may shift in location and vary in intensity. Somatic symptoms can be directly due to physical consequences of torture, be of psychological origin, or both. Also, various types of sexual dysfunction are not uncommon among survivors of torture particularly, but not exclusively, among those who have suffered sexual torture or rape.
Psychotic symptoms may be present such as delusions, paranoia, hallucinations (auditory, visual, olfactory or tactile), bizarre ideation, illusions or perceptual distortions. Cultural and linguistic differences may be confused with psychotic symptoms. Before labelling someone as psychotic, one must evaluate the symptoms within the individual’s cultural context. Psychotic reactions may be brief or prolonged. It is not uncommon for torture victims to report occasionally hearing screams, his or her name being called, or seeing shadows, but not have florid signs or symptoms of psychosis. Individuals with a past history of mental illness such as bipolar disorder, recurrent major depression with psychotic features, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder may experience an episode of that disorder. .
The ICD-10 includes the diagnosis “Enduring Personality Change.” PTSD may precede this type of personality change. To make the ICD-10 diagnosis of enduring personality change, the following criteria must have been present for at least two years and must not have existed prior to the traumatic event or events. These criteria are: hostile or distrustful attitude towards the world, social withdrawal, feelings of emptiness or hopelessness, chronic feelings of “being on edge” as if constantly threatened, and estrangement.
Alcohol and drug abuse may develop secondarily in torture survivors as a way of blocking out traumatic memories, regulating affect and managing anxiety. Other possible diagnoses include: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, acute stress disorder, somatoform disorders, bipolar disorder, delusional disorder, disorders due to a general medical condition, (possibly in the form of brain impairment with resultant fluctuations or deficits in level of consciousness, orientation, attention, concentration, memory and executive functioning), and phobias such as social phobia and agoraphobia.
 American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th edition). Washington, DC:APA.
 World Health Organisation, (1994). The ICD-10 Classification of mental and behavioural disorders and diagnostic guidelines. Geneva.