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Chiarelli seeks clarity in PTSD treatment

SEATTLE — While serving as the Army's vice chief of staff, retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli scrambled to get up to speed on the mental-health issues faced by soldiers returning from combat.

He talked to doctor after doctor, and was disturbed to find that they rarely agreed on how to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that can qualify a soldier for medical retirement.

"It was like a 1,000 flowers blooming," Chiarelli said. "Everyone was doing something a little bit different."

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Speaking Thursday at the Seattle convention of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Chiarelli described how his frustrations with the current state of mental-health medicine led to his new role as chief executive of One Mind for Research, a nonprofit with an office in Seattle.

One Mind was founded by former congressman Patrick Kennedy and Garen Staglin, a winemaker, investor and philanthropist whose son was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Chiarelli hopes One Mind can be a catalyst for finding new treatments and join the fight against stigmas that surround mental illness.

Chiarelli already is adamant on one point. He wants post-traumatic-stress disorder to be shortened to post-traumatic stress. Labeling it a disorder, he says, discourages people from seeking help.

For Chiarelli, who retired earlier this year, his new job is a homecoming of sorts. A Seattle native and Queen Anne High School graduate, he served nearly 40 years in the Army.

During his final years as vice chief of staff, he waged a high-profile campaign to combat a surge in soldier suicides.

He was recognized Thursday with the Distinguished Service Award by NAMI, a grass-roots organization that advocates on behalf of Americans affected by mental illness.

In his new position with One Mind, Chiarelli is working to forge a global network of partners that can step up the pace of basic research on brain disease and spur the development of new drugs that can improve treatment.

Chiarelli said after he left the Army, he asked how many new drugs were in the pipeline to treat post-traumatic stress. He was surprised to learn that there were none.

Chiarelli said he is working on raising money to expand an intensive study of using magnetic resonance imaging and other tools to offer a more definitive diagnoses and assessment of the severity of traumatic brain injury.

Doctors at Madigan Army Medical Center, screening soldiers for possible medical retirement, repeatedly reversed the findings of other practitioners who had made an initial diagnosis of PTSD. Now, the Pentagon is conducting a review of PTSD diagnosis in all branches of the military.

"My goal is to take away what I consider to be the professional disagreement about how to diagnose post-traumatic stress," Chiarelli said. "I don't want there ever to be a question about whether someone has it or not."
 

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