Mental Health Issues in the Military

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Michael Alster

Any American would be hard-pressed to turn on the news and not find something, anything, said about Operation Iraqi Freedom. The war in Iraq is one of the most publicized (and controversial) topics so far of the 21st century. Unfortunately, a common headline reads something like this: “5 Marines killed in Baghdad Today,” “15 American troops injured in a suicide bomb attack in Tikrit this morning.” What about the casualties that aren’t reported on the news? The troops that suffer - not from physical wounds that can heal, be stitched up, or adapted to live with – but from non-visible scars. Mental injuries are becoming increasingly common among today’s decorated war heroes. Many are too embarrassed, scared or uninformed to speak up about it. What factors increase a soldier’s chance of developing stress related symptoms? Does the military do enough to prevent, inform and treat? What else can be done to prevent a soldier from going too far, and taking their own life? The military does provide services to protect and benefit the mental health of its soldiers; however, it is overlooked, disregarded, and ineffective. The Department of defense does not do enough to overcome the hurdles faced to ensure that today’s soldiers and tomorrow’s veterans have access to the information and the care they require. This paper will reference several reports in particular. Due to the nature of the research, very few researchers are willing or able to properly survey the United States Military Personnel and obtain an effective study indicative of the majority of deployed soldiers. Each year, the United States Army sends a Mental Health Advisory Team into the war zone to survey the mental health of soldiers currently deployed. The most recent, (MHAT-V) was issued February 14, 2008, and considers 1,368 soldiers serving in Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. The MHAT-V surveyed soldiers of various gender, age, rank, component (Active, Reserve, etc), marital status, and time in theater. The average respondent was a married 20 to 24 year old male, Active duty rank E-1 through E-4 (frequently referred to as junior enlisted soldiers) and had served 6 to 12 months in theater. In June of 2007, The Department of Defense commissioned a group of psychologists to “examine matters relating to mental health and the Armed Forces” and produce “a report containing an assessment of, and recommendations for improving, the efficacy of mental health services provided to members of the Armed Forces by the Department of Defense.” (ES-1) This report of the Task Force on Mental Health proved valuable for the research for this paper. To evaluate what the military is doing to prevent the problem; we must first understand the problem and its causes. The United States Surgeon General describes mental illnesses and disorders as “health conditions that are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.” While military deployment can result in a host of mental illnesses, and many are experienced simultaneously, the most commonly reported is a very serious disorder blamed for a majority of soldier suicides – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There are thousands of perceptions of what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is, and what causes it. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) is published by the American Psychiatric Association. It is widely used by mental health professionals across the country as a guideline to diagnose and treat every mental illness recognized in the United States. A requirement of PTSD is that there must be some type of traumatic incident (seeing injury or death of another, the individual’s own injury or near death, etc.) For deployed soldiers, however, the risk is higher, and many unique conditions...
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