REPORT: The Military Needs To Get Better At Preventing Service Members’ Mental Health Problems

CREDIT: Shutterstock

The Department of Defense has a long way to go when it comes to effectively preventing mental health problems among service members and veterans, according to a new report by the independent, nonprofit Institute of Medicine (IOM).

The IOM report was commissioned by the Pentagon after government data from the last two years revealed that American service members are suffering from sky-high rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and are committing suicide in record numbers. It highlights several major problem areas — including a dearth of easily accessible mental health facilities, insufficient evidence proving the efficacy of current military mental health screening programs, and a dysfunctional inter-agency coordination system that hinders various service branches and government departments’ efforts to communicate with each other.

Mental health problems kept U.S. service members hospitalized for more days in 2012 than combat wounds, accidental injuries, and physical illnesses combined, according to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center. Military suicides outnumber combat deaths by a 2:1 margin, and anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from PTSD while about 730,000 veterans have some sort of mental illness.

The IOM report confirms previous studies indicating that the military isn’t effective at identifying service members at risk for a mental illness. According to a 2013 News Tribune analysis of data from the Madigan Army Medical Center, less than half a percent of soldiers who took a mental health screening before being deployed during the height of the Iraq War were diverted from combat roles — even after showing signs of a mental health problem. In fact, a stunning 70 percent of veterans with a mental illness either don’t receive mental health care at all or get inadequate treatment.

IOM recommends several strategies for improving military mental health care screenings and treatments, such as establishing evidence-based databases on which programs are most effective; expanding support for military spouses and children; building inter-department systems between the Pentagon and the VA to keep track of which treatments work best for service members and their families.