Soldiers Agree on the Need for Mental Health Services
> 7/9/2007 2:30:07 PM

Repeated press mentions of the poor state of mental health care in the American military have attracted public attention, but a recent Canadian study is the first to survey service members themselves, finding that they understand the issue and share public sentiments regarding the need for an improved system. Also addressed by this study is the fact that chronic mental distress is not strictly limited to soldiers engaged in direct combat and that participation in occupational peacekeeping operations also carries a reduced risk of severe emotional trauma and its related disorders. This is by far the most comprehensive research project yet conceived to address the issues of mental illness facilitated by military experience, and its results reveal a core of service men and women who, like the general public, have quickly recognized and begun to accept the presence and untold power of mental illness in the armed services. The survey (summary available here), conducted among more than 8,000 currently deployed members of the Canadian army and its reserves, looked to expand on earlier related studies by not focusing on a single armed conflict or asking questions relating to a particular mental illness. Because the survey was conducted from May 2002 to January 2003, it did not consider the current occupation of Iraq.

In commenting on the coverage currently offered by psychiatric services, subjects tellingly agreed in large numbers that there exists a need for expanded treatment and that said need has only partially been met. Their responses were particularly stark regarding generalized anxiety and panic disorders, a trend that is understandable considering the detrimental effect such conditions could have on the cohesion of affected units. Social anxiety disorder naturally fell lowest on their list of concerns, excepting an overwhelming sentiment that there is no need for further treatment of alcohol abuse among serving soldiers. This belief may stem from the fact that many consider alcoholism a challenge to be contained by the affected individual absent the help of military-mandated rehabilitatory programs. Still, as the surveys demonstrate, the prevalence of alcohol dependency remains markedly higher within the military than in the general public.

As in the general population, a near-majority of those who believed that they needed help with mental health issues did not receive it - and, tellingly, the most common reason they gave for choosing not to seek it out was that they "did not have confidence in military health, administrative or social services." When service members vote no confidence in the ability of their own institutions to address mental health issues, a decisive change is clearly required. Canada may differ from the United States in certain fundamental ways, least of which is the nature and usage of their military. But on the issue of offering mental health treatment to those who serve their country honorably, approaches should be no different. The U.S. could look to this study for important suggestions on the military mindset regarding mental illness and the next steps that must be taken by the government in order to assure that those who serve do so with the confidence that their country will be able to adequately care for them on their return.

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