Mental health of soldiers returning from war

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
November 13, 2007 9:00:00 PM PST
Many young men and women are making sacrifices to serve in the military, but the experiences of combat can leave their mark. Now, a study is finding a new way to help. As any one with a soldier in the family knows, those returning from combat often bring with them mental health issues like depression and post traumatic stress syndrome. It can be some time before the problems surface. Now, there is a new way to find who needs help.

Tom Williams saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. But after he left the service, there were effects.

"I spent the first six months I was back looking at the ground to make sure I didn't get my legs blown off," he said. "And I was looking at the ground in the mall, and I looked at the ground in McDonalds."

Soldiers like Tom face all kinds of challenges re-adjusting to civilian life.

In the army's mental health screening programs, soldiers are screened upon return from combat.

Now, a newer program also screens them after six months. And it is finding significantly more mental health issues.

"It picks up a second group of soldiers who were not identified on the first screen, and it's actually a larger group of soldiers who had the mental health problems," said Dr. Charles Milliken, of Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

The researchers found that a second screening could identify more issues, such as concerns about interpersonal conflict in the soldiers' lives.

"For the next 30 days following the screen, a number of other soldiers enter the mental health system," Dr. Milliken said. "So something about the screening and training is actually encouraging soldiers to go get care."

Dr. Milliken says the success of that second screening is very important.

"Because we know soldiers tend to have stigma about going in to get mental health care, so something about the screening-training process is countering that stigma and making it more OK for them to get care," he said. "It takes time for reactions to start, and it takes time for you to recognize that there's something wrong," Williams said. "That your behaviors are not just affecting you, they're affecting someone you probably love or care for."

The researchers reviewed the data on more than 88,000 army soldiers. Following the screening, the soldiers go through a process called "Battlemind Training" with other member of the unit. That gives information on common problems that many of them experience and ideas about what they can do about the problems.