One in 10 Iraq War Vets Face Mental Health Problems

A new study finds that veterans' serious mental health problems get worse instead of better a year after they leave battle.

THE GIST

One in 10 Iraq war vets develop serious mental health problems, a new study concludes.

The problems range from violent behavior to depression to alcohol abuse.

The Veterans' Administration recently reported it faces a backlog of more than 175,000 disability claims.

A new study of Iraq war vets shows about one in 10 develop serious mental health problems -- from violent behavior to alcohol abuse -- and that these problems actually get worse instead of better a year after they leave the battlefield.

The same study also found that returning National Guard troops face a tougher time than active duty troops -- perhaps because guard members are readjusting to civilian life and don't have the companionship of their combat buddies to help them deal with traumatic issues, the authors said.

The study is published in today's Archives of General Psychiatry by researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md. It looked at more than 18,000 active duty soldiers and state National Guard units who faced combat in Iraq.

"It's obvious from looking from the numbers that being a soldier is a dangerous and stressful job," said Maj. Jeffrey L. Thomas, chief of military psychiatry at Walter Reed and the lead author. "We're looking at overlapping symptoms and teasing apart the difference in support when they get back. You have to take a hard look if you want to look at intervention or policy. These are data that can be actionable to military leaders. This is still a problem and as long as we're putting soldiers in harms' way, it's an occupational hazard."

Thomas said this new study gives finer details about the kinds of problems soldiers are experiencing three and 12 months after combat. The study asked the active duty and guard units to describe whether they had trouble dealing with work issues, taking care of things at home or getting along with other people.

Overall, between 23 and 31 percent of the soldiers reported symptoms of PTSD or depression. Drinking problems and aggressive behavior -- described as anything from starting fights to slamming doors or punching walls -- was found in half of those cases.

Thomas said state National Guard units faced a tougher challenge in dealing with mental health problems because they have fewer opportunities for peer support after leaving their units, and also because they don't have the same kind of health coverage provided to active duty troops.

As the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan continue, PTSD has gotten the attention of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Congress doubled the budget of the Veterans' Administration in the past eight years and last month passed a new bill that boosts funding to treat PTSD, brain injuries and other combat-related mental health issues.

Still, the Veterans' Administration recently reported it faces a backlog of more than 175,000 claims for all kinds of disabilities, and that veterans wait an average of 110 days to get their claims processed.

These are some of the bureaucratic obstacles faced by veterans seeking mental health care, according to Maggie Haynes, director of combat stress programs for the non-profit Wounded Warrior Project.

"There are a lot of efforts being made (to help veterans), but they are often not well coordinated and a lot are falling through the cracks," Haynes said.

The National Institute of Mental Health is working with the Pentagon on a new study that looks at which treatments work best for PTSD, depression and the high suicide rates among recent veterans.