One out of every five active-duty Army soldiers and 42 percent of Army Reservists who have served in Iraq cite mental health concerns months after they return home, according to a new Army medical study.
The study ighlights the importance of mental health care for returning Iraq veterans in the months after they return home and the need to spot potential mental health issues early.
Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association the study tracked the mental health of 88,000 Army combat veterans by comparing their responses in a mental health questionnaire filled out upon their return home with a second mental health screening three to six months later.
The study found that soldiers are more likely to report mental health problems in the second screening at "significantly higher rates" than in the initial screening. The mental health concerns include symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),depression, mental stress and alcohol abuse.
Part of the mental health stress can be attributed to a four-fold increase in the number of soldiers who cite relationship problems upon their return home. The number of active duty soldiers citing interpersonal conflicts rose from 3.5 percent in the first screening to 14 percent in the second screening.
The study's authors speculate this may be related to reality setting in after the initial euphoria of the return home and the absence of battle buddies with whom to relate shared combat experiences.
Overall, National Guardsmen and Reservists reported mental health concerns at much higher rates than active-duty troops.
The study's authors speculate the disparity may have everything to do with concerns about access to health care coverage as military health care benefits wind down. While active duty soldiers have constant access to health care, reservists are on a clock once they're off active duty.
Their military health care benefits expire six months after they return home and standard VA benefits expire 24 months after they are demobilized. The second screening comes at a time when reservists are transitioning to VA care.
Post traumatic stress disorder rates increased among active duty soldiers from 11.8 percent to 16.7 percent. Reservist rates almost doubled from 12.7 percent to 24.5 percent. Again access to health care is cited as a possible reason behind the large increase among Reservists.
Although soldiers were more likely to report PTSD symptoms on the second survey than on the first, 49 to 59 percent who cited PTSD concerns in the original survey had improved their symptoms months later. It appears that treatment had little to do with the improvement.
The report concludes that the second screening leads soldiers to identify mental health concerns on their own and determine that seeking help might not be such a bad thing even though their issues may not warrant a professional referral.
Many of the soldiers who sought mental health assistance did so within 30 days of the screening -- a sign that the screening process had alerted them to the possible need for assistance.
The study's authors say the study shows the benefits of having a second screening within six months of a soldier's return home, mainly because it identified a larger group citing mental health concerns than the first screening.