FRIDAY, Aug. 17 (HealthDay News) -- Depression may be a largely unrecognized problem for many U.S. soldiers returning from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, placing a tremendous strain on them and their families, a new study suggests.
Researchers studied the home life of 168 soldiers diagnosed with psychological symptoms upon their return home from deployment. Nearly half -- 42 percent -- of these veterans said they now felt like a "guest in their own home," and one in five felt their children did not respond warmly to them, or were even afraid of them.
In many of these cases, depression or another psychological problem, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), played a major role, the researchers said.
The PTSD finding has been observed in other studies, but the link between returning veterans' depression and family trouble is new, experts said.
"It seems like other kinds of mental health issues, besides PTSD, are also resulting in family problems," said lead researcher Steven Sayers, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
"It all sort of spirals, because if you are not feeling supported by your family members and feeling warmth from your spouse and children, you have greater difficulty recovering from symptoms of depression or PTSD," said Sayers, who is also a clinical psychologist at the Mental Illness Research, Education & Clinical Center, part of the Philadelphia VA Medical Center.
One expert applauded the study, which is to be presented Friday at the American Psychological Association annual meeting in San Francisco.
"It underscores the fact that deployments are tough on all family members -- they're tough on the parent who cares for the children and holds the household together while the soldier is gone, and for the entire family that has to deal with all the soldier's experiences once they return," said Deborah Gibbs, a senior analyst for the Children and Families Program at RTI International, in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
Gibbs led a study, published in July in the Journal of the American Medical Association, that found the children of soldiers who saw combat in Iraq were at heightened risk of abuse or neglect when their parent returned home.
In the new study, Sayers' team examined the home life of U.S. soldiers returning from service in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The soldiers had not suffered any grievous physical injury, but routine psychiatric evaluations, conducted upon their return, turned up signs of depression, PTSD or other mental woes.
About 40 percent of the veterans were either married or cohabiting with a partner, 21 percent were recently separated or divorced, and about half had at least one child.
Sayers stressed that the groups studied "are not representative of returning vets as a whole," but are a subset diagnosed with mental health symptoms after deployment. Those types of troubles aren't rare, however: One 2006 study found that one-third of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are availing themselves of mental health services. And a government report released Thursday found there were 99 confirmed suicides among U.S. Army soldiers in 2006, the highest rate in 26 years. More than 25 percent of those who committed suicide did so while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the new study, a diagnosis of either major or minor depression, or PTSD, was highly correlated with family problems, the researchers found.