Rates of diagnosable mental illness and subsequent problems are showing great reduction as American soldiers experience less time in combat. As the war in Afghanistan moves closer to its end, the negative impact on mental health is decreasing.
A study, conducted by the United States’ Army, was released earlier this month with results showing that soldier morale is up and cases of mental illness are down. For those who are now deployed and engaged in active duty, conditions have reportedly improved.
The Army surveyed 888 soldiers anonymously, who were actively serving in Afghanistan in June and July of 2013. An additional 78 soldiers participated in discussions via voluntary focus group involvement.
The 966 total surveyed soldiers represents almost 3% of the 34,000 troops who are currently serving in Afghanistan. While still a large number of Americans are fighting abroad, there were nearly three times as many men and women deployed on any given date in 2011.
According to USA Today, as a result of large deployment rates, the number of suicides by former soldiers was highest in 2012. CNN reports that 22 American soldiers were taking their own lives every single day.
That statistic, from the Department of Veteran Affairs, was only based on the information the agency was given. With 21 states making data public, only about 40% of the United States population is represented in the figures. California, Texas, and Illinois, all on the top five most highly-populated states list did not provide suicide information.
Without a consistent method for reporting deaths in the U.S., the number of soldiers taking their own lives is actually higher than 22 each day. An intentional car accident, for example, might be attributed to motor vehicle complications rather than a soldier suicide. Further, a veteran, who has found him or herself homeless, may not be counted as a former soldier upon death.
Although mental health services are available for veterans, the stigma surrounding mental illness has kept thousands of soldiers from seeking the help they so desperately need when returning from active duty. While the reduction in deployment rates result in fewer impacted soldiers, those who have already served overseas are still living with the repercussions.
Study Results and Real Life Implications
Of those soldiers surveyed, nearly half had fired a weapon, which is about 20 percent lower than in 2010, and for every five soldiers, one had killed a combatant while serving in Afghanistan.
With several other statistics, researchers concluded that a correlation between the number of times deployed and the likelihood of mental illness could be identified, but that overall, soldier morale has increased over the last three to four years. The reasons cited for the change: Army leaders have been trained to show greater interest in the well being of their soldiers, soldiers have increased access to counseling while deployed, and the Army has implemented better upfront screening for mental illness before soldiers are approved for active duty.
With efforts, like President Obama’s $107 million funding for veteran mental health treatment, Stop Soldier Suicide, a non-profit started by a war veteran, and the Veterans Crisis Line that has received close to one million calls since its inception in 2006, the United States is working toward further reduction in the impact of war on its troops.
As proposed plans for less combat are carried out, the trend toward less mental health problems for American soldiers can continue, with lower rates of untreated mental illness and suicide. Each American citizen can help eliminate the stigma that surrounds mental illness. Those who have not served cannot possibly understand the impact of active duty. Compassion and support for all troops, in whatever services are deemed necessary, can perpetuate the movement toward happiness for former soldiers.
Marissa Maldonado is a advocate for helping veterans in recovery, currently she is focusing on mental health treatment through Sovereign Health Group.