Multiple combat deployments to Iraq are increasing serious mental health problems among soldiers, triggering drug and alcohol abuse and contributing to record suicide levels, suggest reports out Thursday at the American Psychological Association meeting in Boston.
In a typical unit headed to Iraq, 60 percent are on their second, third or fourth deployment, lasting about a year each, says U.S. Army Col. Carl Castro, who directs a medical research program at Fort Detrick, Md.
More time in Iraq means heavier exposure to violence, which leads more soldiers to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, Castro told the psychology meeting. By their third tour to Iraq, more than a quarter of soldiers show signs of mental problems, such as PTSD, and it's about 1 out of 3 for those exposed to heavy combat, according to a U.S. Army Surgeon General report in March on more than 2,000 soldiers.
In another report at the meeting, deployment correlated with more heavy drinking and illegal drug use, according to anonymous questionnaires given to about 34,000 active duty troops, Reservists and National Guard members. Deployed Reserve troops had the highest traumatic stress symptoms and rates of "seriously considering suicide," according to the Defense Department-funded study by RTI International, Research Triangle Park, N.C.
National Guard and Reservists sent to Iraq and Afghanistan are disproportionately represented in returning veteran suicides, according to a Departmentof Veterans Affairs analysis. There were 115 Army suicides and 935 reported attempts in 2007, a record high, show Army reports.
"There are concerns about the reserves," says Lynn Pahland, a health promotion policy director in the Defense Department. But the military is increasing efforts to prevent, identify and treat troubled troops,she adds.
At a crisis hotline for veterans, about 75 percent of the 400 calls a weekcome from Reserve and National Guard troops or their families, says Shad Meshad, president of the National Veterans Foundation (1-888-777-4443), which runs the line. "Many have been sent back three or four times," he says.
On Wednesday, a Texas Reservist going to Iraq for the fourth time called "in a hysterical state" because his house is being foreclosed on, and his wife is taking the kids and leaving him. Says Meshad: "We're just trying to help him out with the financial stuff and keep him from hurting himself."