A new study has found that more than 40 percent of U.S. soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who sought treatment from a Veterans Administration hospital suffer from a mental disorder or a related behavioral problem.
Some are comparing this rise in mental health concerns on scale of what was seen in returning soldiers from Vietnam.
The study was conducted by researchers at the San Francisco Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center and the University of California, San Francisco.
The researchers found 37 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who sought treatment at U.S. health facilities from 2002 to 2008 were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, alcohol abuse or other mental concerns.
“After the start of the Iraq War, there is a growing burden of mental illness, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” said Dr. Karen Seal, lead researcher and an assistant professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.
“They will require increased allocation of resources for better detection and early intervention to prevent chronic mental illness, which threatens individual veterans, their families and communities.”
The study said since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, more than 1.6 million U.S. soldiers have served many of whom have been exposed to prolonged combat and multiple tours of duty.
The study found the diagnoses of mental health disorders, especially post- traumatic stress, increased sharply after the start of the Iraq war in March 2003.
Of those who visited department health centers in the first three months of 2004, 14.6 percent were diagnosed with a mental disorder.
After four years, diagnoses among those same veterans had risen to nearly 28 percent the study found.
Seal said often it takes more than a year for symptoms to appear and diagnosis to be made and the study showed that most mental health diagnoses were not made in the first year that a veteran entered the VA health-care system, but several years after and this supports the recent move to extend VA benefits to five years.
“It sometimes takes time, given the stigma associated with mental illness, before we are able to break through the barriers and have patients tell us what is happening,” said Seal.
In January 2008, Congress extended combat veteran health benefits to five years from two years.
Seal’s team collected data on 289,328 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who sought health care at VA medical centers from 2002 to 2008. Of these 106,726 were given mental health care which included 62,929 diagnosed with PTSD and 50,432 diagnosed with depression. That’s nearly 37% of veterans, the authors noted.
“When the definition is expanded to include diagnoses of mental health disorders or psychosocial behavioral problems such as homelessness, or both, 43 percent of these veterans received these diagnoses,” Seal added.
The diagnoses included:
Many vets had several of these problems and 29 percent of veterans with mental health problems were diagnosed with two different conditions, and 33 percent were diagnosed with three or more, Seal said.
In addition the researchers found women had a higher risk for depression, but men had more than twice the risk for drug use problems.
The authors recommended screening and early intervention programs that would target mental health problems of specific groups of soldiers, such as women and younger men.
The high number of mental health disorders puts the U.S. at risk of “an epidemic of chronic mental illness, as occurred with Vietnam veterans,” the study’s authors wrote.
The report was published in the July 16 online edition of the American Journal of Public Health.
Source: American Journal of Public Health