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WASHINGTON — More than one-third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who use the Veterans Affairs health care system have been diagnosed with a mental health problem, a significant jump since the last time the numbers were looked at in 2005, according to a new study.

The study analyzed the records of about 289,000 veterans from the two wars and found that post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are sharply on the rise.

Of the 37 percent with mental health problems, 22 percent were diagnosed with PTSD, 17 percent with depression, and 7 percent with alcohol abuse, researchers determined from analysis of health records from April 2002 to April 2008. Several veterans were diagnosed with more than one problem.

"What’s really striking is the dramatic acceleration in mental health diagnoses, particularly PTSD, after the beginning of the conflict in Iraq," said Dr. Karen Seal, a staff physician at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and an assistant professor at University of California, San Francisco, who was the study’s lead author.

The study revealed the prevalence of new diagnoses in early 2008 had nearly doubled from four years prior in 2004, increasing from 14.6 to 27.5 percent.

Multiple and lengthy deployments, increased awareness of PTSD, and the lack of definable front lines “characterized by unexpected threats to life such as road-side bombs and improvised explosive devices” might all contribute to the increasing numbers, the study said.

“Waning public support and lower morale among troops may predispose returning veterans to mental health problems, as occurred during the Vietnam era,” the study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, also noted.

Some think the trend will continue as fighting in Afghanistan escalates.

“This is just the beginning,” said Patrick Campbell, chief legislative council for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “This is only going to keep growing as we continue to fight. The longer we wait to get ahead of this issue, the worse it’s going to get.”

With the drawdown in Iraq, “we need to start preparing for the surge home,” Campbell said.

The study also found the number of veterans with mental health issues rose the longer they were out of the service, which the study posited might be because of the stigma associated with seeking out mental health treatment and the delayed onset of problems.

Campbell’s group calls for more robust screening when troops return from combat, including requiring face-to-face evaluations.

“These are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances,” he said, noting that civilian police officers often have to go to counseling after drawing a gun, regardless of whether it’s fired.

More than half of the veterans looked at in the study were active-duty veterans and the rest were either National Guard or Reserve — and psychological toll was different in the two populations.

The study found that active-duty veterans younger than 24 years were at higher risk for mental health problems than those over 40.

The study’s authors attribute that to the likelihood of increased combat exposure at the lower ranks.

That trend was reversed with National Guard and Reserve troops, as the older veterans were more likely to have problems. The study posits that’s because they were more entrenched in civilian life when called to duty and more likely to have families.


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