Column - Mental health, pushed to extreme
Published: Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 08:03
The effect of combat stress on the American military’s mental health has been gruesomely illustrated once again.
Last Sunday, a rogue army staff sergeant ,stationed in Afghanistan, left the relative safety of his post, and walked house to house in a nearby village, shot and killed 16 Afghan civilians.
The soldier, who reportedly suffered a head injury during one of his three previous deployments to Iraq, is an extreme case of the terrible effect combat environments have on our military.
The killings come at a period when anti-U.S. temperament in Afghanistan is raging, and the psychological health of U.S. military personnel is at an all-time low.
Time and time again, incidents like this one have underscored the need for more precautions to ensure the mental stability of a soldier before he is given a weapon and sent to a forward location.
After serving five years in the Marine Corps, I’ve known quite a few service members who suffered from psychological damage incurred from being in a constant cycle of combat training and long deployments.
I can remember sitting through countless "warrior transition briefs" and "safety stand-downs" during my recent enlistment. These two-to-six hour-long classes were implemented in response to the growing number of mental health issues in service members who were returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These briefs usually consisted of slide after slide of well-worn mental health statistics and cheesy "responsible" drinking videos.
Military officials hoped this training would bring down the record number of mental health incidents that have plagued troops since 2001.
In reality, these presentations amounted to little more than a "check-in-the-box".
Additionally, every service member who would soon depart to or return from a combat zone was required to take a deployment mental health assessment.
These assessments were two or three-page questionnaires which asked service-members vague questions, such as "In the last month, how many times have you felt depressed?"
I’m no psychology major but I can tell you that these tests were nearly worthless. Anyone wishing to avoid the hassle and the perceived stigma of being labeled as a mental health casualty would simply reply to the above question with "0 times".
Apparently, even out of those who do admit to having emotional problems, few are receiving the treatment they need.
According to a 2007 study by the Army’s mental health advisory team, only 40 percent of service members who screened positive for serious emotional problems received help from a mental health professional.
There is obviously a dire need for more proactive measures to ensure those who are displaying signs of emotional issues are properly taken care of.
Military officials also need to take more action in preventing soldiers from acquiring mental health problems in the first place.
Although the psychological side effects of war can never be completely prevented, certain factors that cause existing conditions to grow worse can often be avoided.
Repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are one of the greatest causes of mental stress disorders among soldiers today.
In fact, a study conducted by the Department of Veteran Affairs showed the occurrence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to be nearly three times higher in soldiers who have been on at least one previous deployment.
Far too often, service members are returning from 13 month deployments to the "sandbox" only to spend their time in the United States training for another deployment in six months.
Some branches have implemented programs to establish a 1:2 deployment: stateside ratio. However, this ratio is often broken due to troop shortages or simply because a soldier feels an obligation to serve with his unit. In which case, the soldier is compensated with only a few extra days of leave.
Equally, the length of deployments also plays a major role in the mental well-being of military personnel.
Some army units are deploying for up to 15 months at a time.
Not only do these long and frequent deployments push a soldier’s mind to the extreme, the effect they have on soldiers’ relationships are just as damaging.
"I really believe that dwell is one of the things we have to look at and has an impact on all kinds of problems, not just suicides, but you know all the things that fall short of suicide from relationship issues to drug and alcohol abuse, to high-risk behavior, to all those things. The more time we can get between deployments, the better off we’ll be," said U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff, General Peter Chiarelli in 2011.
At a time when suicides are claiming more lives than two wars, the need for a sound mental health program has never been so important.