Less than half a percent of soldiers who took a pre-deployment mental health screening during the height of the Iraq War were diverted from combat roles after showing signs of a mental health problem, according to a News Tribune analysis of data from the Madigan Army Medical Center. Considering the record levels of military suicides and soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, an ongoing stigma over mental health problems may be preventing members of the armed forces from admitting to their experiences with depression and anxiety.
Of the 72,000 pre-deployment surveys analyzed by the Tribune, only 486 resulted in a mental health referral — and 236 of those soldiers still went on to normal tours of duty. Only 60 soldiers’ referrals eventually led to a medical retirement, and another 190 returned to duty without deploying for combat.
That’s seemingly at odds with current trends in military mental health. In January, the number of U.S. service members in Afghanistan committing suicide reached a record high of 350 — constituting over 100 more deaths than even combat — and last June, the Associated Press found that military deaths from suicide outnumber combat deaths by a 2:1 margin. The Veterans’ Affairs Department estimates that at least 15 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
As Col. Mark Baggett of Madigan’s Behavioral Health Department explained to the Tribune, the discrepancy between the realities of military mental health and the number of soldiers diagnosed with pre-deployment mental issues at the height of the war is likely due to solders’ reluctance to admit they have a problem. That’s especially true at times when the armed services need as much personnel as possible. “Most of it is team dynamics. It’s like a sports team. If you don’t show up for the big game, you might not be trusted,” said Col. Baggett.
These mental health dilemmas — and service members’ reluctance to seek help — aren’t just limited to those in combat roles. For instance, the Los Angeles Times recently reported that a slight majority of recent active duty suicides were actually committed by troops who were never even deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Researchers speculate that many are looking for fulfilling careers and are loathe to admit any medical issues that might get them kicked out of the armed forces. Stigma over mental health care prevents more than one in three Americans with a serious mental illness from pursuing care.
While the Pentagon has been pushing service members to seek psychological help, the availability of that care may dry up after they return home from duty. The VA currently has over 900,000 unprocessed medical claims, many of which are mental health-related. That’s led some states to take extraordinary measures, such as New Mexico’s effort to provide returning veterans with free mental care for a year.