Troops in Afghanistan face mental health issues, studies say

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After an American soldier allegedly killed 16 Afghans in their homes in a horrific shooting spree during the weekend, military officials speaking on condition of anonymity said it was believed the suspect in the slayings had suffered a mental breakdown.

Though the reason for Sunday’s tragedy remains under investigation, mental illness has been a persistent and growing problem for members of the military in Afghanistan, according to several recent studies.

Psychological problems recently reached a five-year high among Marines in Afghanistan, according to a study by a mental health advisory team last year. Nearly 20% of the Marines surveyed in Afghanistan reported psychological problems such as severe stress and depression in 2010, twice the rate as in 2005.

As military personnel are sent into combat over and over, their risk of mental health problems grows, the study found. Almost a third of Marines on their third or fourth deployment in Afghanistan reported psychological problems, compared with 14% of Marines deployed for the first time.


The study also found that the Marines who most need help are most averse to getting it. The stigma tied to getting help for mental health problems was roughly twice as strong among Marines suffering psychological problems, with nearly half saying it would make them seem weak, the study said.

Another recent study found that mental disorders and suicide rates in the military surged up between 2004 and 2008. Mental illness rates nearly doubled after troops were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army Public Health Command found.

‘The increase in suicide rates may be viewed as the tip of the ‘mental health iceberg,’' the study published last week said.

Last year, an Army private accused of killing a Taliban prisoner by shooting him in the face agreed to plead guilty in the slaying, despite his diagnosis of schizophrenia. His parents said he had repeatedly told them through email and phone conversations that he was hearing voices, The Times reported.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles