About one-third of U.S. military personnel returning from the war in Iraq use mental health services after their return home, according to a study published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Experts say this is the first study of its kind to assess the mental health needs of American soldiers who have served abroad.
Army psychiatrist Major Geoffrey Grammer spent a year in Iraq helping soldiers cope with combat. Grammer himself was shot at.
"It was one of those times when you'd sit there and you'd say, "I can't believe this is happening to me," he said. "I don't have any choice but to kind of wall this off, and move on and attend to the mission at hand.""
Numerous studies have been conducted about the effects of war, including rates of alcoholism and post-traumatic stress syndrome, notably after Vietnam.
But to date, experts say there has been no analysis by the U.S. military of the impact of deployments on the use of mental health services by returning soldiers. Military officials say they want to know that information so they can make sure there are adequate resources.
Dr. Charles Hoge of Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Silver Spring, Maryland, and colleagues conducted a study to determine the relationship between deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, and mental health care use during the first year after soldiers return home.
"The study shows that soldiers who are returning from Iraq, that a higher percentage of those soldiers report mental health concerns and use mental health services when they get home from Iraq compared to soldiers returning from Afghanistan or other locations," said Dr. Hoge.
Hoge and colleagues at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research studied about 300,000 military service members who returned home from Iraq, Afghanistan and other deployment locations between 2003 and 2004.
Overall, 19 percent of soldiers and Marines who returned from Iraq displayed signs of depression or other major mental health concerns compared with 11 percent for Afghanistan and 8.5 percent for other locations.
Hoge says he found that exposure to combat situations were most likely to cause the greatest distress, with Iraqi veterans using inpatient and outpatient mental health services at higher rates than those deployed to other locations.
"The most important finding of the study, though, is that most of the services that soldiers are receiving, mental health services, they're coming in to get care early, within the first two months particularly of coming home. And this is very encouraging," he concluded.
Hoge says early treatment makes a big difference in the recovery of mental health. So, Hoge says the military is encouraging U.S. soldiers who need help to get mental health assistance as soon as possible.