Study: Screening Before Deployment Protects Soldiers’ Mental Health

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TIKRIT, IRAQ- OCTOBER 16: United States Army Captain Craig Childs from Galveston, Texas of the 1st battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division bows his head during a memorial service that included helmets resting on M-16's for Specialist James Powell and Specialist Donald Wheeler Jr. October 16, 2003 in Tikrit, Iraq. The two soldiers lost their lives during combat operations on October 12 & 13th. The area continues to be volatile as the U.S. forces try to stamp out the last of Saddam Hussein holdouts. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Screening troops for mental health problems before they deploy helps protect them from developing psychiatric or behavioral problems in the field and from requiring clinical care for combat stress, according to findings from an Army study published this week in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The study involved six combat brigades comprising more than 21,000 soldiers, who deployed to Iraq for 15-month tours starting in 2007. Before deployment, troops in three brigades received specific screenings for mental health, which included questions like “Are you currently taking any medications for a mental health condition?” and “Do you have any past or recent history of suicidal or homicidal thoughts, plans or attempts?” (More on Time.com: A New Study Shows How We Can Prevent Some Cases of PTSD)

Soldiers whose answers to the 15-question battery raised flags were further analyzed by a mental-health expert. Then, they were either cleared for or prohibited from deploying, allowed to deploy with restrictions or deployed after a delay.

The other three brigades, the control group for the study, did not receive any extra mental health screening.

After tracking all soldiers for six months, the researchers found that the troops in the screening group were significantly less likely than the control group to suffer from psychiatric or behavioral disorders or to require clinical care for combat stress. Compared with the screened brigades, the control group also had nearly twice as many soldiers who needed to be evacuated for mental health reasons and who reported having thoughts of suicide. (More on Time.com: 5 Ways to Stop Stressing)

The New York Times reported:

The authors of the study said mental health problems were lower in the screened group for several major reasons, including the prevention of deployment by some high-risk soldiers. In addition, they said, the screening identified vulnerable men and women who then received additional care during their deployment.

“The most important part about the study, even more than the screening, is that they identified which soldiers could benefit from follow-up treatment in-theater,” Col. Rebecca Porter told CNN.

The study suggests an effective new measure to protect the mental health of troops, which the Army needs, given the high rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide among soldiers. The last protective action came in 2006, when the Department of Defense began barring those who were being treated for serious mental illnesses from deployment. Since then, it has also screened troops for PTSD and suicidal tendencies. (More on Time.com: Five New Rules for Good Health)

The Army Surgeon General’s office said Tuesday that it hopes to implement new screening and treatment procedures — based in part on the results of the new study — in as soon as six months.

More on TIME.com:

For Many Soldiers, Mental Trauma Lingers at Home

Prevention and PTSD: How to Stop An Illness Before it Starts

Does Playing Tetris Help Prevent PTSD Flashbacks?

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