The Disturbing Mental Health Situation of Returning Soldiers
Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 30, 2008
The military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to over 4,700 deaths of U.S. soldiers (in addition to over 1.2 million deaths of Iraqi and Afghan people) and tens of thousands of physical injuries to U.S. soldiers. As we know too well, some of those injuries are catastrophic.
The mental health of returning soldiers has received much less attention, no doubt in part because those injuries are less apparent, because many people still view mental illness as less serious than physical illness, and because of choice myth in the context of mental illness: there is a common presumption that mental illness reflects a weak will (as opposed to biological impairment) of the person and that it can be corrected by the person, if the person so chooses.
Given the horrific conditions of warfare, however, perhaps the mental illness of soldiers will receive more credibility. New revelations about the number of veterans attempting suicide will certainly draw attention to the issue: although the Veterans Health Administration recently claimed that 800 veterans are attempting suicide each year, newly-uncovered e-mails from government officials indicate the actual number of veterans attempting suicide each year is closer to 12,000.
Just released data about the number of soldiers who have returned, and will return, from Iraq and Afghanistan with very serious mental health-related problems should also raise public consciousness. A new study by the RAND Corporation entitled “Invisible Wounds of War,” indicates a truly jaw-dropping figure: 1 out of every 5 returning soldiers–or about 300,000 total soldiers to date–suffers from either post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Below we excerpt an article by Lizette Alvarez of the International Herald Tribune on this topic.
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One in five service members who have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, but little more than half of them have sought mental health treatment, according to an independent study of United States troops.
The service members and veterans who reported these symptoms represented about 19 percent of the 1.6 million service members who have deployed to war in the last five years, a figure consistent with the most recent findings by military researchers. A 2007 survey of combat army soldiers who had been home for several months found that 17 percent of active-duty troops and 25 percent of reservists had screened positive for symptoms of stress disorder.
The study, released on Thursday by the RAND Corporation, reported that about 19 percent of the troops said they might have experienced a traumatic brain injury, usually the result of powerful roadside bombs, yet a majority of those troops had never been evaluated for such an injury.
The 500-page study is the first exhaustive, private analysis of the psychological and cognitive injuries suffered by service members. The study sought to determine the prevalence of these injuries, gaps in treatment and the costs of treating, or failing to treat, the conditions.
RAND researchers conducted a telephone survey from last August to January 2008 with 1,965 service members, reservists and veterans who had deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan in the last five years. Some respondents had deployed more than once. The researchers also gathered data from focus groups. The survey was conducted in 24 communities with high concentrations of service members, reservists and veterans.
The Defense Department said that it was heartened that the data reflected its own findings on the prevalence of mental injuries, and that the study helped highlight the hurdles the military faces in helping veterans.
“We’re on a long journey, and we’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go,” said Colonel Loree Sutton of the army, head of the new Defense Center of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Lisa Jaycox, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND and a co-author of the new study, “Invisible Wounds of War,” said the findings also served to underscore the barriers, some of them self-imposed, that troops face in getting help. War veterans say they are often reluctant to seek treatment, in part out of fear that their medical information will be used to derail their careers. Commanders typically have access to a service member’s military medical records.
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For the rest of the article, click here. To access “Invisible Wounds of War,” click here. For related Situationist posts on the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, see The Situation of Soldiers, “Our Soldiers, Their Children: The Lasting Impact of the War in Iraq,” “The Situation of a “Volunteer” Army,” “From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part I,” and “Looking for the Evil Actor.” For related Situationist posts on mental health, see “The Situation of Racial Health Disparities” and “Guilty or Not Guilty? Law & Mind Meet Hamlet.”