Helping service members improve their quality and quantity of sleep after deployment could help reduce many other health problems, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a new RAND Corporation study.
“The U.S. military has shifted from combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan toward helping service members and veterans reintegrate into noncombat roles,” said researcher Wendy Troxel, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.
“One issue that is often overlooked once military men and women return home is that of persistent sleep problems, because in many ways such problems are viewed as endemic to military culture,” said Troxel.
Sleep difficulties are a common response to stress and are tied to a variety of physical and mental health problems. Sleep problems are often long-term, persisting well after service members return home from combat, with consequences for their reintegration, researchers say.
The RAND report is the first comprehensive review of sleep-related policies and programs across the U.S. Department of Defense. Researchers examined the frequency of sleep disorders and factors that contribute to sleeping problems by surveying nearly 2,000 service members from all branches of the U.S. military. The findings showed that sleep problems had negative effects on mental health, daytime functioning, and perceived operational readiness.
“Military policies on prevention of sleep problems are lacking, and medical policies focus on treating mental disorders that are often linked with sleep problems, instead of sleep itself,” said Regina Shih, Ph.D., project co-leader and a senior social scientist at RAND. “We know that sleep problems may precede the onset of mental disorders.”
The stigma for seeking sleep treatment is typically lower than the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health problems. Researchers say this suggests sleep could be a gateway to improving psychological health and readiness in service members.
Historically, military cultural attitudes have tended to discount the importance of sleep, say the researchers. In fact, military members have said that depriving oneself of sleep is often seen as a badge of honor and admitting the need for sleep can be looked upon as a sign of weakness.
The military tends to emphasize the mission first, and the need for sleep may be sacrificed for operational demands. The researchers suggest that there needs to be widespread education and awareness programs within the Defense Department as a way of shifting these cultural attitudes.
Policies are needed to educate service members and leaders about the importance of sleep, including awareness on the importance of sleep for resilience. For example, leaders may not be sure of how to develop and execute sleep plans that can balance circadian rhythms with the realities of operational environments, or how to give adequate recovery periods after extended sleep deprivation in order to optimize troop readiness.
The researchers present 16 policy recommendations to help the military improve the prevention, identification, and treatment of sleep problems in service members.
Those policies fall under four broad categories: prevention of sleep problems; increasing identification and diagnosis of sleep problems; ways to clinically manage sleep disorders and promote sleep health; and ways to improve sleep in training and operational contexts.
Source: RAND Corporation