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Army’s Health Assessment Working, Study Finds

By Sgt. Sara Moore, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 13, 2007 – The system of post-deployment health screenings the Army has set up is working to identify mental health problems in soldiers returning from combat and reduce the stigma of seeking mental health care, a study that will be published tomorrow found.

The report, titled “Longitudinal assessment of mental health problems among active and reserve component soldiers returning from the Iraq war,” which will be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, looks at the first 88,000 soldiers who went through an initial post-deployment health screening and a second screening three to six months after they returned from combat.

The study found that the second screening, which was put in place after a preliminary Army study suggested that a group of soldiers’ health problems were being missed with only one screening, is working to identify more health concerns and potential problems before they become worse, Army Col. Charles Milliken, with the division of psychiatry and neuroscience at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, said today in a conference call with veterans service organizations.

“What we’re hoping to do with the screenings is to tackle mental health problems while they’re still small and temporary,” Milliken said. “When these problems get bigger and more complicated, they’re much harder to treat, and it increases the likelihood that they will become a chronic, long-term problem. Through post-deployment screenings, we’re attempting to catch problems early and intervene early.”

In addition to the two health screenings, the Army also has instituted a program called “battle mind training,” which allows soldiers who have recently deployed to interact with each other and learn about common problems faced by returning veterans, Milliken said. This study found that that training, in conjunction with the health screenings, is helping to reduce the stigma of seeking mental health care, he said. Not only do the screenings identify soldiers who need mental health care, but after going through the process, many soldiers are identifying their own problems and seeking help, he said.

Another important finding from the study was that, of soldiers who identified suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder during the first health screening, more than half had improved by the time of the second screening, Milliken said. Many of these soldiers improved without treatment, he said, which shows that the training process itself is acting as an intervention for early mental health problems.

Overall, on both screenings, 20 percent of soldiers were referred for mental health treatment or were already under care at the time of the second screening, Milliken said. This rate is comparable to what the Department of Veterans Affairs reports about the rate of mental health diagnoses for recent combat veterans. Army leaders hope that by identifying these problems early, they can treat the soldiers before the problems progress, he said.

“We are proactively seeking to understand the human dimension of war and apply what we’ve learned in ways that improve the care that we’re providing the soldiers,” he said.

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