Study: 35 Percent of Iraq Vets Seek Mental Care

A new study shows that 35 percent of troops returning from Iraq are seeking help for mental-health issues. Most of the problems are easily treatable, but more than one in 10 soldiers are diagnosed with a serious mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression.

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A new study says large numbers of troops coming home from Iraq are seeking help for mental health issues. More than one in ten are being diagnosed with a mental illness.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro has that story.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:

Charles Hogue is the doctor who puts numbers to mental health disorders among soldiers. He's an Army psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. For his latest research, Hogue studied the medical records of more than 200,000 soldiers and marines back from Iraq.

Dr. CHARLES HOGUE (Walter Reed Army Institute of Research): After being home for a year, about a third of all soldiers and Marines who had been in Iraq used mental health services of one kind of another.

SHAPIRO: Thirty-five percent got help for some problem like not sleeping, being angry or anxious. And that's just those who went to military clinics. Hogue's numbers don't count visit to chaplains, or those who quickly left the military and then went to VA clinics. Hogue says the numbers show soldiers know to ask for help and where to get it. And he says getting help early can stop a small problem from turning into a big one, like post-traumatic stress disorder. That's a sometimes disabling psychiatric condition that can result from being exposed to danger.

Dr. HOGUE: A lot of soldiers who come back from a war zone are jumpy, revved up and don't sleep well. Those are normal reactions after combat, and if you address those as normal reactions and treat them early, then our goal is to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder and depression down the road.

SHAPIRO: Of all the soldiers and marines who did seek help, 12 percent got diagnosed with a serious mental health problem, PTSD, anxiety or depression. That number turns out to be lower than some experts had expected. Hogue thinks it's because troops do get treated early. But he says it might be that military mental health providers simply don't want to give someone a more stigmatizing diagnosis like PTSD. Tom Berger says that means the actual number could be higher.

Dr. TOM BERGER (Vietnam Veterans of America): The job of the military, of course, is war. It's not mental health.

SHAPIRO: Berger works with returning veterans. He's the head of the PTSD and Substance Abuse Committee for Vietnam Veterans of America. Berger says the military's done a lot to add mental healthcare. That's a lesson learned from the advocacy of Berger and others who served in Vietnam. But he worries that there's still a lot of stigma that prevents troops from seeking help, and that conditions like PTSD may not show up for months or even years later.

Dr. BERGER: Well, it could be anywhere from a month to several years. I mean, in the case of Vietnam veterans, we still have people turning up for the first time. For years they've been self-medicating or they've been in denial. The problem is that we know from previous research that it takes awhile for PTSD to show up and for people to recognize that they need help.

SHAPIRO: Two years ago, Dr. Hogue was the lead author of a widely quoted study. That one found that 17 percent of troops come home from Iraq showing signs of a serious mental health problem. At the time, other experts predicted that number would rise, especially as combat became more widespread. But Hogue's new study didn't find that.

Dr. HOGUE: The higher rates actually were observed in the earliest part of the war. So even though the war has changed, there were a lot of other improvements in theater that improved morale and may have helped to reduce the mental health consequences, things like better living conditions, air conditioning, better meals, better access to mental health services.

SHAPIRO: There was also speculation that women soldiers and National Guard and reserve members who are older would have more mental health problems. But the new study shows that women and guardsmen report only slightly higher rates of mental health concerns. The research appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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