Percentage of veterans with mental health problems jumps dramatically

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About 37% of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have mental health problems, a nearly 50% increase from the last time the prevalence was calculated, according to a new study published today analyzing national Department of Veterans Affairs data.

The study, which examined the records of about 289,000 veterans who sought care at the VA between 2002 and 2008, also found higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.


“What’s really striking is the dramatic acceleration in mental health diagnoses, particularly PTSD, after the beginning of the conflict in Iraq,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Karen Seal, a staff physician at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and an assistant professor at UC San Francisco.

The researchers said they could not pinpoint the exact causes of the increase, but suggested: “Waning public support and lower morale among troops may predispose returning veterans to mental health problems, as occurred during the Vietnam era.”

They also suggested that more and longer deployments could have also contributed to the increase in diagnoses.

The previous study of national VA data, which examined Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans seeking care between 2001 and 2005, found that 25% of those veterans received mental health diagnoses. About 13% were diagnosed with the anxiety disorder PTSD and 5% with depression.

The new study by Seal and her colleagues, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that 22% of the veterans in the study had PTSD and 17% had depression.

When the researchers compared veterans of Afghanistan from early in the war to veterans of Iraq four years later, they found the rates of PTSD diagnosis more than tripled.

The newest study correlates closely to a 2008 report by the Rand Corp., based on a much smaller sample of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. In that study, about 14% met the criteria for PTSD and 14% for depression.

In related news:

The National Institute of Mental Health announced it has commissioned a $50-million study to identify risk and protective factors for suicide among soldiers, calling it “the largest study of suicide and mental health among military personnel ever undertaken.”

The institute said in a statement that the study was a direct response to the Army’s request to use the most promising scientific approaches to address the rising suicide rate. Though the suicide rate in the Army had been historically lower in the military than among civilians, that pattern reversed in 2008, when the suicide rate in the Army became about 20 suicides in every 100,000 soldiers.

The research teams will be based at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, University of Michigan, Harvard University and Columbia University.

-- Jia-Rui Chong