For many soldiers, mental trauma lingers at home

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© Mark Edward Atkinson/Blend Images/Corbis

Roughly one in ten soldiers returning from Iraq faces ongoing struggles due to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and other conditions, according to a new study published in the June issue of the Archives of Psychiatry. In the study, a team of researchers led by Dr. Jeffrey L. Thomas, chief of military psychiatry at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, analyzed anonymous mental health surveys completed by more than 18,000 soldiers following deployment in Iraq between 2004 and 2007.

Researchers asked soldiers to complete questionnaires both 3 months and 12 months after returning from deployment in Iraq and used their responses to screen for incidence of PTSD, depression, alcohol abuse and aggression issues. The surveys also asked returning soldiers whether residual mental health struggles interfered with their daily lives.

Thomas and colleagues found that, using only the narrowest diagnostic criteria, as many as 11.3% of returning soldiers suffered from symptoms of PTSD, while up to 8.5% showed symptoms of depression. Using broader diagnostic criteria, however, they found that between 20.7% to 30.5% of soldiers suffered from symptoms of PTSD, while between 11.5% to 16% exhibited signs of depression. On average they found that between 9% to 14% of soldiers returning from deployment in Iraq suffered PTSD or depression symptoms severe enough to affect functioning in their day to day lives.

What’s more, even a year after returning from service in Iraq, most soldiers’ mental health struggles showed no signs of abating, and among soldiers who had been called up from the National Guard in particular, many actually saw symptoms worsen with time. Gaining a better understanding of the residual mental health impact of war-time service is critical to determining the best possible way to protect U.S. soldiers while also protecting national security, the authors point out. They go on to conclude:

“If soldiers who are struggling with serious functional impairment as the result of a previous deployment are deployed again, there is potential that this could impair their performance in combat. This has implications for the safety of unit members and mission success. Further research is needed to understand the effects of self-perceived serious impairment and military occupational performance… It will continue to take a collective effort from Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, community providers, and veteran organizations to help this generation’s veterans readjust after service in Iraq and Afghanistan.”