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​'How did these guys get in the Army?' New study delves into mental illness

Published time: March 05, 2014 00:11
Reuters / Andrew Burton

Reuters / Andrew Burton

About one in five US soldiers have been found to have a common mental illness such as depression or panic disorder upon enlisting in the Army, according to a new study.

A second study showed that over eight percent of soldiers had contemplated suicide and 1.1 percent had attempted suicide, researchers found via confidential surveys and interviews with 5,428 soldiers at Army bases across the US.

The studies’ results were published on Monday in JAMA Psychiatry. Experts say the findings show a weakness in recruiting processes. Army applicants are asked about their psychiatric pasts in evaluations, while those with certain disorders or a history of suicide attempts are often kept from entering the service.

Another separate study of one million soldiers from 2004 to 2009 found that those who had been deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq had an increased rate of suicide.

The studies are the first released as part of a large research initiative that began in 2009 by the Army and the National Institute of Mental Health in response to a spate of suicides in the armed forces. In 2011, a representative sample of soldiers was assessed for eight common psychiatric disorders.

Researchers found that soldiers interviewed had joined the Army with higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than the general population.

"The question becomes, 'How did these guys get in the Army?'" Ronald Kessler, a Harvard University sociologist and leader of one of the studies, said to the Los Angeles Times.

The studies found that over eight percent of soldiers came into the Army with intermittent explosive disorder, marked by unrestrained anger attacks. It was the most common disorder found, as pre-enlistment levels were six times the civilian rate.

Pre-enlistment rates of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse were found to be close to civilian rates. Suicidal ideation, planning, and attempt rates fell under the general population rate, though still significant.

Though during military service, the surveyed soldiers’ rates of psychiatric disorders climbed well beyond civilian levels and far beyond the normal rate for some disorders.

A quarter of soldiers were found to be suffering from a mental illness: around five percent with depression, around six percent with anxiety disorder, and almost nine percent with PTSD.

The amount of soldiers who had attempted suicide went up from 1.1 percent to 2.4 percent, though the study did not explain a possible cause.

Harvard University’s Matthew Nock, leader of the suicide study, said that over 30 percent of suicide attempts after enlistment would not have occurred if the Army had nixed recruits who were found to have pre-existing psychiatric disorders.

He recommends stricter screening standards for recruits, though other experts are not certain that the solution is so simple.

"People who want to come into the Army are no fools," said Dr. Elspeth Ritchie, a former chief psychiatrist in the Army. "They know if you say you had a past suicide attempt, you're probably not going to get in."

The Pentagon has not commented on the studies.

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