Extended Military Deployments Exacerbate Mental Health Problems
> 10/22/2007 12:05:58 PM

The American media's decision to highlight the mental health issues confronting our soldiers requires a robust response, and the military has convened multiple task forces to address the growing problem. But the influence of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder does not begin and end within our own ranks. Lest we forget, America's allies also have vested interests in our current conflicts, especially when thousands of their own troops serve beside our own. In looking for methods by which to predict the influence of various service-related variables on the prevalence of mental illness among active-duty and returning soldiers, British researchers measured the respective mental health conditions of more than 5,000 individuals who'd served in at least one of Britain's multiple conflicts or peace missions over the last three years, testing for depression, fatigue, PTSD, and alcohol abuse. Their important study proves the largely accepted point that extended deployment and the increased exposure to certain stressors that it inevitably entails have detrimental effects on the mental health of those who serve.

Deployment is hardly cause for mental illness on its own—hundreds of thousands of soldiers participate in American military efforts both foreign and domestic, and they sign up for service with an approximate sense of what sort of assignments that membership will entail. Many weathering repeated or extended deployments suffer from little more than fatigue and a sense of maturity that only military service can provide. The key factor in the military mental health equation is repeated exposure to "toxic" stimuli, which can range from pronounced exhaustion to close encounters with battle. Depending on a given soldier's personal disposition and the toxic factors to which he or she is exposed, that individual may return from service a profoundly changed person. And treatment, if appropriate, should be forthcoming.

On a very basic level, the longer a soldier remains deployed, the more likely he or she is to suffer from a mental illness. Soldiers with multiple deployments were 1.7 times as likely to suffer from depression. Simple length of deployment serves as a central determining factor: soldiers serving for more than six months at a time were more than 1.5 times as likely to register acute stress than those whose periods of service were shorter. That is why the recent bump in U.S deployment length from 12 to 15 months may lead to more future issues. The British service system is far more conservative, as soldiers may only serve for a total of 12 months every three years. The British military estimates that U.S. soldiers experience a "greater combat intensity" in our current co-operative conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to the study, uncertainty regarding the length and intensity of current deployments plays a role in determining each soldier's mental state as well: "Post-traumatic stress disorder was more likely when a mismatch occurred between the expected and actual lengths of deployment." In a statistical trend nearly identical to that reported by the U.S. Military's May 2007 Mental Health Advisory release, researchers also found that those involved in active combat reported predictably higher rates of all relevant conditions than those deployed in more supportive and organizational capacities away from the battlefield.

Considering these variables will undoubtedly help the military design pre-emptive healthcare plans to better address the psychiatric issues created by any sort of lengthy armed conflict. The study's most important assertion is that "providing continuity of care" for all conditions factors heavily into the military's list of responsibilities. Unfortunately, our military seems, at least in some cases, to have missed that message: the military has discharged more than 20,000 servicemembers in recent years due to "pre-existing personality disorders" that experts somehow failed to notice when the individuals in question signed up for service.After receiving these discharges, soldiers are unable to get much-needed treatment as it is no longer covered by the military. Critics claim that this practice amounts to a disingenuous way for the military to avoid paying for the treatment of those who've served, and returned with mental scars. These situations lower morale and call the military's own intake evaluations into question. If the military wants to avoid such complications, they should employ more rigorous mental health standards at the outset and refuse to accept individuals who actually have pre-existing conditions. Overlooking or minimizing potentially serious conditions in order to provide more troops for immediate service should not be an acceptable policy no matter how informally it may be practiced, and discharging men and women after the fact is even worse.

Given the number of servicemembers and civilians currently involved in the 29 armed conflicts occurring around the world, the implications of this study reverberate far beyond the United Kingdom and the United States. It also should remind us that, as much as we focus on the struggle in Iraq, the traumas of battle affect millions far removed from the 160,000 Americans currently serving in the Middle East. The U.S. has a duty, as a world leader and facilitator of international discourse, to offer our troops the best possible service we can. Funding, though obviously a crucial issue, cannot take precedence over the well-being of those who've had the courage to serve.

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