Military grapples with mental health issues
As the war in Afghanistan enters its 10th year, repeated deployments have been linked to stress, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder among troops, as well as rising rates of suicide.
Through June, the last month for which data was available, military doctors diagnosed nearly 6,000 news cases of PTSD, according to the latest Pentagon report. Last year, a total of 13,000 new cases of PTSD were diagnosed.
Other mental health disorders — including depression, substance abuse and adjustment disorders — also continued to plague the military. Through June, 16,411 servicemembers were newly diagnosed with a mental illness.
At that rate, there will be more than 30,000 troops diagnosed with a mental disorder this year.
In 2010, researchers worked to find the root causes of these mental health problems, including combat experiences, mild traumatic brain injuries and sleep deprivation.
Mental health issues also were underscored by rising suicide rates.
Through November, there were 271 confirmed or suspected suicides among active- and non-active duty Army members, compared to 242 in 2009. Also through November, there were 144 confirmed or suspected suicides among active-duty soldiers, compared to 162 for all of 2009.
June was the worst month on record, with 32 suicides among active-duty and reserve troops.
In August, the Army released the results of a 15-month review into the problem, which blamed lax leadership for more high-risk behavior among soldiers and was considered a strong call for action. A separate Pentagon report detailed poor coordination and scattershot efforts within each of the branches when developing suicide prevention programs.
The number of Marines committing suicide had been rising the past two years, but that changed in 2010 with 46 suicides through November. Still, the number of Marines who attempted suicide reached 165 — the most in any year since 2001. A record number of active-duty airmen — 54 — committed suicide this year, as well as 33 active-duty and reserve sailors.
Meanwhile, military doctors revamped efforts to diagnose concussions among combat troops downrange. Lacking a definitive test for mild traumatic brain injuries, the military issued new guidelines in July requiring anyone near a blast to rest for 24 hours and be screened for symptoms of a concussion.
The guidelines have started to show results, with diagnosed concussions among U.S. troops in Afghanistan increasing from 62 in June to 370 in July after the new rules were imposed.
Researchers also found that blasts produce a unique type of brain damage, one that differs from the damage caused by a typical blow to the head. Scientists are optimistic that a definitive test for mild TBI will be developed, and the military is now testing one that will look for unique proteins in the blood.