Psychiatric Ills Widespread Among U.S. Soldiers

(HealthDay News) — Three new studies suggest that a sizeable percentage of American soldiers suffer from some type of mental health issue, at rates higher than those seen in the general population. The studies were published online March 3 in JAMA Psychiatry.

In one study, researchers found that a full quarter of active duty, non-deployed Army soldiers tested positive for at least one psychiatric disorder after taking a mental health assessment exam. Eleven percent showed signs of more than one psychiatric condition. Conditions that had their onset prior to enlistment in the Army included major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, panic disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Overall, close to 13% of the soldiers examined had mental health impairments that were serious enough to compromise their ability to carry out their Army roles.

A second study looked more closely at the link between mental illness before enlistment in the Army and the risk for suicide. The researchers found that about 14% of soldiers said they had had suicidal thoughts, 5.3% had planned suicide, and 2.4% had made actual attempts. In almost 60% of cases, soldiers who had attempted suicide had mental disorders that seemed to have begun before their enlistment in the Army. The third study looked at risk factors that might predict soldiers at higher risk for suicide. Reviewing data on almost one million Army soldiers on active duty between 2004–2009, the researchers found a rise in suicide rates between those years, in currently and previously deployed soldiers. Those at highest risk for suicide were white males, soldiers at a junior enlisted rank, and soldiers who had recently been demoted.

Two of the three studies relied on data from the STARRS survey, a major research effort involving almost 5,500 soldiers. “These results are a wake-up call highlighting the importance of outreach and intervention for new soldiers who enter the Army with pre-existing mental disorders,” Robert Ursano, MD, chair of the department of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD, and co-principal investigator of the Army STARRS survey, said in a Harvard news release.

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