A new study has found that the stigma about mental illness has decreased among U.S. soldiers in recent years. Soldiers are more likely to seek mental health assistance now, as they feel more comfortable doing so than in the past.
The study, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health, used data from active-duty Army personnel surveys that were conducted between 2002 and 2011. The researchers focused on the impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the mental health of soldiers. Up to one in four active infantry soldiers met criteria to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
However, despite the large number of U.S. soldiers suffering from PTSD and other conflict-related mental health issues, the study authors found that the number of soldiers who used mental health services in 2011 was at 15 percent — double the eight percent of soldiers who sought services in 2003. In addition, the authors discovered that soldiers were more comfortable in seeking services, pointing to a reduction in negative stigma about mental health.“[W]e’ve seen a small but reliable decrease in mental health [services] stigma,” said Phillip Quartana, a research psychologist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md., according to HealthDay. “There have been campaigns and trainings in the military to try to reduce stigma surrounding these issues. It’s a confluence of all these efforts.”
Despite the decrease in stigma, Quartana says there’s still a long way to go before the U.S. military can get soldiers properly cared for when it comes to mental health. Two-thirds of soldiers with PTSD and major depression didn’t seek care between 2002 and 2011, the study also reports, which isn’t too promising of a sign.
Studies have shown that the rates of mental illnesses like PTSD, depression, suicidal thoughts, and intermittent explosive disorder are significantly compounded in soldier populations compared to civilians. One study found that nearly 25 percent of 5,500 active-duty, non-deployed Army soldiers tested positive for a mental disorder of some sort. While being in active duty might spur mental disorders like PTSD, the authors of the study found that many of the soldiers tested already had a mental disorder when they enlisted. PTSD is a particularly severe problem among soldiers and veterans, with the rates in soldiers being 15 times higher than those in civilians. In addition, the suicide rate among veterans is frighteningly high.
In light of the Mental Health Parity Act and Obamacare’s emphasis on bringing mental health services more into the spotlight, the U.S. military’s attempts to care more for the mental health of soldiers is also apparent, and manifests itself in the RESPECT-Mil Program. Though the mental health services for soldiers and veterans might not be enough right now, at least the trends are pointing to a decrease in stigma, which can only mean progress in the long run.
Mental health services “should really be embraced as a cost of war,” Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, told HealthDay. “We seem to have a spare-no-expense policy, as we should, when it comes to preserving the lives of our troops. We need to have the same mentality when it comes to preserving their mental health.”
Source: Quartana P, Wilk J, Thomas J, et al. Trends in Mental Health Services Utilization and Stigma in US Soldiers From 2002 to 2011. American Journal of Public Health. 2014.
This article first appeared on Medical Daily on 19 July 2014.