Pentagon Report Cites Mental Health Concerns

A Pentagon report decries the status of mental health care in the military. As many as one in four who serve have symptoms. Some are suicidal. But there are too few mental health specialists to provide needed help.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

A Pentagon task force is warning that there's a mental health crisis in the military. Its report just out doesn't actually use that word, crisis; it's written in bureaucratic tones. But the military's mental health task force says that about 40 percent of troops have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with psychological problems. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling joins us now. Good morning, Danny.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: First, tell us a bit about this task force. Who set it up and why?

ZWERDLING: Well, Congress ordered the Pentagon to do this study a couple of years ago. You know, some senators were getting these frantic calls from troops and their families, basically saying help us, we're falling apart. We have post-traumatic stress disorder. We can't get help at our bases. And Congress said to the Pentagon, look, you set up a task force with the leading mental health specialists from inside and outside the military, and send that task force to bases around the world and tell us what you find.

MONTAGNE: Forty percent with psychological problems; it's sort of an astonishing number. Walk us through that and the other main finding.

ZWERDLING: Now, some of those psychological problems aren't terribly serious, but the Army itself says about 20 to 25 percent of soldiers have symptoms of serious mental health disorders. So I studied one base in Colorado, Fort Carson, and let me tell you what I found there. I found that a large number of soldiers were coming back from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder, or traumatic brain injury, or severe depression, some were suicidal, but they often had to wait weeks and weeks to see a therapist. And worse than that, when their sergeants or captains and other officers learned that they have serious mental health problems, the leaders punish the soldiers. I mean, I've heard stories about how they were forced to clean latrines or forced to sit like a dunce for 24 hours at a time in the corner.

And Fort Carson, I found, was kicking out a lot of soldiers with mental health problems. Kicking them out of the Army. So the task force visited 38 military installations around the world, including Fort Carson and also Fort Hood in Texas, and Fort Bragg in North Carolina, plus some bases in Germany and Okinawa, and the task force reported the same kinds of problems that I found at Fort Carson. They didn't detail how soldiers were being punished, but they found that most of the troops and most of their officers agreed that if you say I have a serious mental health problem, folks, that it could hurt your career.

MONTAGNE: What then, though, is the main problem? Is it the attitude in the military about mental illness or is it a lack of resources, or both?

ZWERDLING: All of those. The task force found that basically the training in the military on mental health issues is terrible. They said that the troops don't get trained well about the mental health problems they might get. Their leaders and officers aren't trained well, and the report found that even the mental health specialists and doctors aren't really well trained on how war causes post-traumatic stress disorder and other serious problems.

In addition to that, the Pentagon task force found that there is a huge lack of money and staff at most of the bases to give troops the treatment they needed and they found that over the past few years, that mental health specialists have been leaving the Army and the Marines and the Air Force in droves. And the task force said that if the Pentagon doesn't do something drastic to hire huge numbers of mental health specialists soon, the problem will get even worse over the next few years.

MONTAGNE: What's going to happen, say, in response to this report?

ZWERDLING: Well, the Secretary of Defense now has about six months to say to Congress, okay, here's what I'm going do to correct the problem, this task force told me, and it could be a combination of I will do this on my own, and it could be, hey - you, Congress - you're going to have to come up with the millions or billions of dollars to help me fix this problem.

MONTAGNE: Danny, thanks for very much.

ZWERDLING: Renee, thank you.

MONTAGNE: Senior correspondent Daniel Zwerdling. And a final note on what is happening more immediately. The Associated Press reports the Army plans to hire about 200 new psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to help returning soldiers at a cost of about $33 million.

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