Get access to a PCL-5 Checklist to assess the presence and severity of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

By Bernard Ramirez on Jul 05, 2024.


Fact Checked by Ericka Pingol.

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What is the PCL-5?

The PCL-5, or the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Checklist for DSM-5, is a widely recognized and extensively utilized assessment tool specifically designed to evaluate the presence and severity of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. It is a reliable and valid instrument for diagnosing PTSD and monitoring treatment and recovery progress.

Developed by the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the PCL-5 encompasses a range of symptoms associated with PTSD, including intrusion, avoidance, negative alterations in cognition and mood, and hyperarousal. By assessing these symptoms, the PCL-5 provides clinicians and researchers with a standardized method of evaluating the severity of PTSD and its impact on an individual's daily functioning.

The questionnaire consists of 20 items, each scored on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 4 (extremely). Respondents are asked to rate the frequency and intensity of their experiences over the past month, reflecting their level of distress and impairment. The items cover a variety of PTSD symptoms, such as intrusive thoughts, nightmares, efforts to avoid reminders, negative beliefs, and heightened startle response.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychological condition that surfaces following an individual's repeated or extreme exposure to a traumatic event. Such events often involve severe physical harm or a threat to the individual or a close associate (e.g., verbal or physical aggression, actual or threatened death, sustaining a serious injury). PTSD is recognized by its complex interplay of emotional, physical, and psychological symptoms, significantly impacting the afflicted individual's daily life.

Diagnostic criteria for PTSD diagnosis

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), offers a comprehensive framework for diagnosing PTSD. The American Psychiatric Association (2013) created this widely respected manual establishing the PTSD DSM-5 criteria. The full diagnostic criteria, distributed into five distinct sections, help clinicians accurately assess the nature and severity of the patient's symptoms.

  1. Exposure to trauma: The first criterion necessitates exposure to a traumatic or life-threatening event. This might involve direct personal experience, witnessing the event, or learning that a close friend or family member was exposed to trauma. This can also be due to recurrent exposure to traumatic details in professional settings, such as responders collecting human remains and police officers repeatedly exposed to details of abuse, violence, and crime.
  2. Intrusion or re-experiencing: This set of symptoms involves recurrent distressing dreams, intrusive distressing memories, and sudden flashbacks associated with the traumatic event. These memories can often be so vivid that individuals feel like they are reliving the traumatic event. Intrusion symptoms are often triggered by reminders of the trauma (internal or external cues), leading to prolonged psychological distress or physical reactions.
  3. Avoidance of trauma-related stimuli: This criterion pertains to the individual's efforts to avoid distressing trauma-related thoughts, feelings, or external reminders of the event. This avoidance could mean evading conversations, places, people, or activities that could arouse distressing memories.
  4. Negative alterations in cognition and mood: This involves a range of negative changes in the individual's thoughts and moods related to the traumatic event. These could manifest as persistent and distorted, exaggerated negative beliefs and expectations about oneself or the world, self-blame or blame of others, a persistent inability to experience a positive emotional state, diminished interest in significant activities, feelings of detachment or estrangement from others, or a pervasive inability to experience positive emotions.
  5. Marked alterations in arousal and reactivity: The final cluster of PTSD symptoms involves changes in arousal and reactivity following the traumatic event. This could include irritable and angry outbursts, reckless or self-destructive behavior, hypervigilance, an exaggerated startle response (even if there's little or no provocation), concentration difficulties, or sleep disturbances.

Symptoms of PTSD

If you or your patient are experiencing any of these PTSD symptoms, it is recommended that you conduct  or take this test to evaluate symptom severity:

  • Intrusive memories
  • Recurrent nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Severe emotional distress to triggers
  • Physical reactions
  • Avoidance of talking or thinking about traumatic or stressful event
  • Avoiding places, people, or activities that remind you of trauma
  • Negative mood and thinking changes
  • Hopelessness
  • Isolation
  • Apathy (especially regarding hobbies)
  • Feeling numb
  • Memory lapses
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Easily startled
  • On guard for danger
  • Self-destructive or irritable behavior
  • Guilt or shame feelings
  • Irritability
  • Can't experience positive emotions

‍It is still important to note that only a professional can diagnose PTSD, so if you're using the PCL-5 to test yourself, you shouldn't self-diagnose.

How does it work?

Using the PCL-5 involves several steps to assess and quantify PTSD symptoms accurately. Here is a breakdown of the process:

Step 1: Administration

The PCL-5 can be administered in different formats, including paper-based printable PCL-5 forms or digital versions. It can be completed by the individual experiencing symptoms (self-report) or administered by a clinician (clinician-administered).

Step 2: Item rating

The PCL-5 consists of 20 items that assess various PTSD symptoms. Each item is rated on a scale of 0 to 4, indicating the frequency and intensity of the symptoms experienced over the past month. Higher scores reflect greater symptom severity and clinically significant distress.

Step 3: Symptom evaluation

The items cover different aspects of PTSD, such as intrusive thoughts, avoidance behaviors, negative moods or beliefs, and hyperarousal symptoms. Respondents read each item carefully and select the rating that best describes their experience.

Step 4: PCL-5 scoring

Once all items have been rated, the scores are summed to calculate a total score. The total score represents the overall severity of PTSD symptoms. Higher scores indicate a greater likelihood of meeting the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis.

Step 5: Interpretation

Clinicians and researchers interpret the total score in the context of established cutoffs or clinical guidelines. These guidelines help determine the presence and severity of PTSD symptoms. Comparing scores over time can track changes in symptom severity and treatment progress.


For clinicians, the PCL-5 helps inform diagnostic decisions, treatment strategies, and the monitoring of symptom reduction. Researchers also utilize the data obtained from the PCL-5 to study the effectiveness of interventions and contribute to the broader understanding of PTSD.

PCL-5 example (sample)

The PCL-5 PDF consists of a standardized questionnaire designed to assess and quantify symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The template provides a structured format for individuals or clinicians to rate the frequency and intensity of each symptom experienced over the past month. We have created a sample PCL-5 form to serve as a valuable tool for accurately assessing and monitoring PTSD symptoms in clinical and research settings.

Download this PTSD Checklist 5 (PCL-5) example:

PCL-5 example (sample)

When is it best to use the PCL-5?

The PCL-5 template is a valuable resource in various situations where assessing and quantifying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms are essential. Here are some key scenarios in which this template is appropriate and beneficial:

Clinical PTSD diagnosis

Mental health professionals utilize the PCL-5 template to aid in accurately diagnosing PTSD. By systematically assessing the presence and severity of symptoms, clinicians can gather crucial information to inform their diagnostic decision-making process. The template provides a standardized framework for evaluating PTSD symptoms, ensuring consistency and reliability in the diagnostic process.

Treatment planning

The PCL-5 template proves invaluable when developing a treatment plan for individuals with PTSD. By assessing the severity of symptoms, clinicians can tailor interventions to address specific symptom clusters and prioritize the most distressing or impairing aspects. The template helps identify the areas that require attention, allowing for a more individualized and targeted treatment approach.

Treatment progress monitoring

Throughout therapy, the PCL-5 template is utilized to monitor the progress of individuals in achieving their treatment goals. By regularly administering the template, clinicians can track changes in symptom severity over time. This information provides valuable feedback on the effectiveness of the chosen treatment strategies and aids in making necessary adjustments to optimize outcomes.

Research studies

The PCL-5 template is widely used in research studies focusing on PTSD. It allows researchers to collect standardized data on symptomatology, facilitating comparisons between different study populations and interventions. The template's established reliability and validity make it a valuable tool for advancing our understanding of PTSD, contributing to evidence-based practices, and developing new treatment approaches.

Screening and assessment

The PCL-5 template can be employed in various screening and assessment settings. For example, in a healthcare setting, it can be used as an initial screening tool to identify individuals who may be experiencing PTSD symptoms and require further evaluation. In addition, it can be used in population surveys or screening programs to assess the prevalence of PTSD symptoms in specific groups.

Why use Carepatron as your mental health software?

Carepatron is an excellent choice for conducting PCL-5 assessments due to its comprehensive functionality, user-friendly interface, customization options, and ongoing support and updates. 

The app also supports collaboration and communication among healthcare professionals, allowing for easy sharing of assessment results and facilitating multidisciplinary discussions. The responsive customer support team is readily available to address any queries or issues that may arise. These features will convince you to consider us your number-one clinical documentation software and mental health practice management software.

Carepatron is the optimal choice for conducting PCL-5 assessments, contributing to a more efficient and effective approach to assessing and managing PTSD symptoms. Sign up for a free trial!

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American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Pearson.

What is the purpose of the PCL-5?
What is the purpose of the PCL-5?

Commonly asked questions

What is the purpose of the PCL-5?

The PCL-5 aims to assess and quantify symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) based on the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

How many items are included in the PCL-5?

The PCL-5 consists of 20 items that cover a range of PTSD symptoms, including intrusion, avoidance, negative alterations in cognition and mood, and hyperarousal.

Can the PCL-5 be self-administered?

Yes, the PCL-5 can be self-administered by individuals experiencing symptoms of PTSD. It is also commonly used in clinician-administered formats.

How are the items on the PCL-5 scored?

Each item on the PCL-5 is scored on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 4 (extremely). Respondents rate the frequency and intensity of their experiences over the past month.

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