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Depression, Substance Abuse, and Mental Illness in the Military

By Colin Gilbert

A 2007 CBS News story recounted the life of a soldier, Staff Sgt. Daniel Shannon, who had been injured in combat and subsequently suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Shannon was prone to violent outbursts, where he would find himself destroying furniture in fits of rage. Sadly, stories like his are common; as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have lingered on, rates of mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, suicide, and PTSD have steadily climbed.

The horrors of war are surely only imaginable to those who have suffered through them. It is easy to conceive that the nightmarish quality of combat inflicts permanent mental damage upon soldiers, and new data testifies to the existence of such scarring. A mental health survey from the Pentagon in 2007 stated that 38 percent of soldiers who had returned home from combat reported the onset of psychological symptoms such as anger, depression, and alcohol abuse.

Perhaps more alarming is the survey’s disclosure that there have been “dramatic decreases” in the number of military health care professionals since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began in 2001 and 2003, respectively. As the wars continue, and soldiers have been repeatedly called back to duty, the mental stress has only worsened. The long tours have pushed the limits of the military personnel’s mental toughness, sometimes past their limits. Yet, while there is an increasing need for mental health professionals, there are fewer available.

The Pentagon reports that the United States government “currently lacks both funding and personnel to adequately support the psychological health of service members and their families.” Currently there are about 500 mental health professionals in the Army, while over a million men and women have served in the ongoing wars. How to summon the resources necessary for helping the soldiers is a matter of political debate, but, one way or another, something needs to be done.

Breaking down cultural prejudices is another key issue for helping damaged veterans. Many troops voluntarily avoid treatment because of the stigma attached to being mental ill. Coming out of a culture where weakness of any kind is looked down on, soldiers are more likely to hide their symptoms. Even worse, mental illness is sometimes identified as “craziness” by the insensitive or ignorant, and soldiers are especially resistant to being labeled as such.

One high-ranking official says the military places tremendous emphasis on maintaining a soldier’s physical health but is often neglectful of mental well being. However, new efforts are being made to confront the growing problem. In August of 2009, the U.S. Army announced a new $117 million dollar program designed to expose its soldiers to emotional resiliency classes.

The program aims for Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, and, according to Army spokesman Gary Tallman, is “designed to build resilience in soldiers, family members, and Army civilians by developing five dimensions of strength: physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and family.”

Ideally, the soldiers will learn skills for coping with the stress of war and responding positively to adversity. Also, with proper education about the nature of mental illness, the stigmas will hopefully dissolve and soldiers will no longer be afraid to seek help.

There is still hope.

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