A nosological exploration of PTSD and trauma in disaster mental health and implications for the COVID-19 pandemic

Carol S. North, Alina M. Surís, David E. Pollio

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


The coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic rapidly spread around the world, resulting in massive medical morbidity and mortality and substantial mental health consequences. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an important psychiatric disorder associated with disasters, and many published scientific articles have reported post-traumatic stress syndromes in populations studied for COVID-19 mental health outcomes. American diagnostic criteria for PTSD have evolved across editions of the manual, and the current definition excludes naturally occurring medical illness (such as viral illness) as a qualifying trauma, ruling out this viral pandemic as the basis for a diagnosis of PTSD. This article provides an in-depth nosological consideration of the diagnosis of PTSD and critically examines three essential elements (trauma, exposure, and symptomatic response) of this diagnosis, specifically applying these concepts to the mental health outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic. The current criteria for PTSD are unsatisfying for guiding the response to mental health consequences associated with this pandemic, and suggestions are made for addressing the conceptual diagnostic problems and designing research to resolve diagnostic uncertainties empirically. Options might be to revise the diagnostic criteria or consider categorization of COVID-19-related psychiatric syndromes as non-traumatic stressor-related syndromes or other psychiatric disorders.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number7
JournalBehavioral Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021


  • COVID-19
  • Disaster
  • Exposure
  • Nosology
  • Pandemic
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Psychiatric diagnosis criteria
  • Psychiatric disorders
  • Trauma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Development
  • Genetics
  • Psychology(all)
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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