July 15, 2008 – As U.S. troops come home from the ambush zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re facing serious mental health problems on a scale unprecedented in the history of American warfare.
Of the roughly 1.64 million U.S. troops who have deployed to and returned from Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001, a recent RAND Corp. study found that some 300,000 exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression severe enough to seek treatment.
Unfortunately, only 53 percent of those actually sought help from a physician or mental health provider in the months before the study’s release in April.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that often occurs after someone experiences a life-threatening event and is particularly prevalent among troops stationed in combat areas. That’s not surprising when you consider the constant anxiety of combat units fighting an unconventional enemy who wears civilian clothes, hides in the shadows and believes that suicide bombings are religiously justified.
It’s sobering to think that, even though early detection and prompt treatment could prevent the disabling, permanent consequences that PTSD often inflicts, large numbers of our troops willingly forgo available mental health services.
This aversion to treatment reflects the generally held stigmas among Americans that result in statistics consistently showing only one-third to one-half of those with diagnosable mental disorders receive any mental health services.
Despite much progress in understanding mental health, society still regards it with a mixture of wariness and indifference. Such fears have driven many afflicted veterans underground and away from treatment. Amazingly, some of these attitudes have been perpetuated by official policies.
Until last month, for example, veterans applying for government security clearances were still required to report mental health treatment for injuries related to combat. The reporting requirement created a perception — albeit baseless — that seeking mental health treatment could jeopardize careers.
For their service and their sacrifice, our war veterans deserve the best care available. Only recently have our policy-makers become attuned to this responsibility. For example, the Honor Our Warriors Act — bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sens. Kit Bond, R-Mo., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. — would train more behavioral health specialists to provide community-based counseling for active-duty military personnel.
The bill is a good start, but we also need to expand the funding we commit to research and cures for mental health ailments. Treating mental illness — both in our returning troops and in the general population — is a winning investment for society. The estimated annual direct costs of untreated mental illness in the U.S. alone now run to more than $100 billion.
A commitment aimed at reducing mental illness could slice that dramatically, making deep cuts in the current rates of disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, and send our shocking rates of suicides and homicides spiraling downward.
Although we have excelled at discovering and developing new mental health therapies in recent years, the fact remains that there is still much we don’t know about neural processes and the unique challenges facing our troops returning from war.
In addition to improved facilities and more trained workers, there is an urgent need for more mental health research on trauma-related disorders to give physicians and patients a better understanding of mental illness and its biological underpinnings.
Fully addressing war-related psychiatric disorders to help returning combat veterans successfully re-enter civilian life requires a sustained increase in federal funding for mental health research.
Both veterans and non-veterans will benefit as better treatments and services ultimately allow us to custom-tailor treatments for millions of Americans with mental health disorders.
Our combat veterans already have made unprecedented sacrifices for America; giving something back by funding research to ease their mental suffering surely isn’t too much to ask.