Thirty-one percent (31%) of U.S. soldiers returning home from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and who sought out care at a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital or care facility are diagnosed with a serious mental health issue or psychological problem. The researchers found that mental health diagnoses and psychosocial problems were detected early and in primary care medical settings in a substantial proportion of veterans seen at VA facilities.
The study authors published their findings on Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine and called for a greater emphasis on the proper diagnosis and treatment of mental health concerns.
Dr. Karen Seal, one of the study’s researchers from the University of California and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said the prevalence of mental problems among veterans threatens “to bring the war back home as a costly personal and public health burden. Our results signal a need for improvements in the primary prevention of military service-related mental health disorders, particularly among our youngest service members.”
The study tracked 104,000 veteran admissions to the VA system from 2001 to 2005. Most initial mental health diagnoses (60%) were not made in mental health clinics, but instead primary care settings with a general physician. Diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other problems were most prevalent among younger soldiers, the study found.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, which has symptoms that include flashbacks and can become debilitating, was diagnosed in 13,205 veterans, or 13 percent. In comparison, a similar diagnosis was made in fifteen percent (15%) to nineteen percent (19%) of returning Vietnam veterans. Just 3.5% of the general population is afflicted with PTSD.
The incidence of mental problems found in the latest study was about the same among men and women and among different racial groups but younger soldiers were more likely to be afflicted than older ones. Soldiers younger than 25 also are more likely to be assigned to combat units than older service members.
“Our findings suggest that enhanced prevention, detection, and treatment should be targeted at the youngest veterans younger than 25 years, particularly those in the active duty components,” Seal wrote.
The overall proportion of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from mental health problems was consistent with recent research, she said.
“The majority of military personnel (serving in Iraq and Afghanistan) experience high-intensity guerrilla warfare and the chronic threat of roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices,” Seal wrote. “Some soldiers endure multiple tours of duty, many experience traumatic injury and more of the wounded survive than ever before.”