Combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, mental health problems and barriers to care

Charles W Hoge, Carl A Castro, Stephen C Messer, Dennis McGurk, Dave I Cotting, Robert L Koffman
U.S. Army Medical Department Journal 2008, : 7-17

BACKGROUND: The current combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have involved US military personnel in major ground combat and hazardous security duty. Studies are needed to systematically assess the mental health of members of the armed services who have participated in these operations and to inform policy with regard to the optimal delivery of mental health care to returning veterans.

METHODS: We studied members of 4 US combat infantry units (3 Army units and a Marine Corps unit) using an anonymous survey that was administered to the subjects either before their deployment to Iraq (n=2530) or 3 to 4 months after their return from combat duty in Iraq or Afghanistan (n=3671). The outcomes included major depression, generalized anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which were evaluated on the basis of standardized, self-administered screening instruments.

RESULTS: Exposure to combat was significantly greater among those who were deployed to Iraq than among those deployed to Afghanistan. The percentage of study subjects whose responses met the screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety, or PTSD was significantly higher after duty in Iraq (15.6% to 17.1%) than after duty in Afghanistan (11.2%) or before deployment to Iraq (9.3%); the largest difference was in the rate of PTSD. Of those whose responses were positive for a mental disorder, only 23% to 40% sought mental health care. Those whose responses were positive for a mental disorder were twice as likely as those whose responses were negative to report concern about possible stigmatization and other barriers to seeking mental health care.

CONCLUSIONS: This study provides an initial look at the mental health of members of the Army and the Marine Corps who were involved in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our findings indicate that among the study groups there was a significant risk of mental health problems and that the subjects reported important barriers to receiving mental health services, particularly the perception of stigma among those most in need of such care. The recent military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have involved the first sustained ground combat undertaken by the United States since the war in Vietnam, raise important questions about the effect of the experience on the mental health of members of the military services who have been deployed there. Research conducted after other military conflicts has shown that deployment stressors and exposure to combat result in considerable risks of mental health problems, including posttraumatic stress disorder, major depression, substance abuse, impairment in social functioning and in the ability to work, and the increased use of healthcare services. One study that was conducted just before the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan began found that at least 6% of all US military service members on active duty receive treatment for a mental disorder each year. Given the ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, mental disorders are likely to remain an important healthcare concern among those serving there. Many gaps exist in the understanding of the full psychosocial effect of combat. The all-volunteer force deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and the type of warfare conducted in these regions are very different from those involved in past wars, differences that highlight the need for studies of members of the armed services who are involved in the current operations. Most studies that have examined the effects of combat on mental health were conducted among veterans years after their military service had ended. A problem in the methods of such studies is the long recall period after exposure to combat. Very few studies have examined a broad range of mental health outcomes near to the time of subjects' deployment. Little of the existing research is useful in guiding policy with regard to how best to promote access to and the delivery of mental health care to members of the armed services. Although screening for mental health problems is now routine both before and after deployment and is encouraged in primary care settings, we are not aware of any studies that have assessed the use of mental health care, the perceived need for such care, and the perceived barriers to treatment among members of the military services before or after combat deployment. We studied the prevalence of mental health problems among members of the US armed services who were recruited from comparable combat units before or after their deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. We identified the proportion of service members with mental health concerns who were not receiving care and the barriers they perceived to accessing and receiving such care.

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