Military's Mental Health Report Stresses Need for Continued Improvement
> 3/6/2008 1:39:55 PM

According to information released today from a military report on mental health, troop morale among soldiers in Iraq improved slightly over the past year. Despite this fact, the report has also revealed other, less optimistic details about the wars' toll on mental health, and the psychiatric well-being of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan remains a pressing concern. One of the study's most significant findings is that soldiers fighting in Afghanistan are experiencing higher rates of mental illness than has been the case in previous years.

The study, which monitors mental health issues in the military, has been conducted annually during the past five years. To gain information, mental health experts questioned over 2,200 soldiers serving in Iraq and roughly 900 serving in Afghanistan, and their findings demonstrate the importance of better mental health care for those serving in the military. Studies have already concluded that extended and repeated deployments strain the mental health of soldiers, and not surprisingly, these researchers observed that soldiers serving third or fourth tours of duty had more mental health problems than soldiers deployed for the first or second time. The rate of mental illness among soldiers in Afghanistan was similar to the rate reported last year among soldiers in Iraq, at around 30%. Still, the overall prevalence of mental illness among soldiers in Afghanistan has increased, and rates of depression in this group of soldiers have also risen and are even higher than rates of depression reported among soldiers in Iraq last year.

The rise in violence seen in Afghanistan over the past year may play a large role in why the rate of mental illness among soldiers stationed there has grown. While 72% of soldiers in Iraq reported having been exposed to mortar fire, 83% of soldiers in Afghanistan said the same, and last year saw the highest number of casualties in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Importantly, the report points toward a new kind of training as a beneficial preventative treatment. "Battlemind" training prepares soldiers and their family members for the stresses of service and of the adjustment problems they may face upon returning home, and surveyed soldiers who had received Battlemind training had fewer mental health problems than those who did not.

The report has identified other areas of improvement as well, especially in terms of troop morale and willingness to seek mental health treatment. Of soldiers stationed in Iraq who were surveyed, 11% said their unit had "high" or "very high" morale, while only 7% of soldiers had said the same last year. In addition, 20% of individual soldiers said they themselves had "high" or "very high" morale, another slight improvement over last year, when only 18% placed themselves in this category. Last year's report also indicated that the stigma surrounding mental health problems prevented many soldiers from seeking help, as 34% of polled soldiers said getting treatment for a mental health problem would damage their career. This year, only 29% felt that this was true.

More mental health services are necessary to help soldiers both during and after their service in the military, and increasing suicide rates among soldiers and veterans illustrate just how crucial these efforts are. The military's annual report is an important tool in recognizing where improvements are most needed, and with these results in mind, the military may want to focus more attention on helping soldiers fighting in Afghanistan cope with the extreme stress they face daily. According to the report, the military may increase the number of mental health workers available to help active-duty soldiers, and efforts such as these will greatly benefit soldiers' mental health.

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