Army Providing 'Unprecedented' Mental-Health Support to Troops
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 7, 2006 Soldiers who undergo the most intense, realistic training before deploying to combat tend to experience the fewest associated mental health problems, the Army's surgeon general told Pentagon reporters during a roundtable session today.
Army Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Kevin Kiley compared deploying soldiers to football players preparing for a big game. Those who "put on the pads every day and try intercepting every day" are more prepared for the rigors of the game.
Troops returning from combat deployments demonstrate that similar preparation helps steel them for the stresses they inevitably face, Kiley reported. "The ones who were the most distressed said they needed more, tough training," he told reporters.
The Army's emphasis on what Kiley called "battle-minded training" recognizes basic facts about combat, he said. "It's hard. It's dangerous. It's scary," Kiley said. And by preparing for those realities, soldiers are more prepared when they're exposed to them, he said.
Regardless of what some headlines might lead people to think, most soldiers don't have mental-health problems during or after their deployments. "When our soldiers return home, most will experience a brief readjustment period and a successful home transition," Kiley said. "The majority of troops are and will remain mentally healthy."
But that said, Kiley acknowledged that deployments - particularly those that expose troops to prolonged combat - put heavy stressors on even the most healthy troops. Some will need short- or long-term counseling to help with their transition, he said.
He estimated that 15 to 30 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress or other mental-health issues. "This is not unusual after combat," he said.
Early diagnosis and treatment is the key to keeping these symptoms in check and preventing them from becoming full-blown disorders, he said. Toward that end, the Army provides its members mental-health support that begins before they deploy and continues throughout their deployment and after they return to their home stations.
"More than any time in our history, our soldiers and our commanders are armed with information about combat and its impact on mental and behavioral health," Kiley said. "We have more resources available at home and in the theater of operations than ever before."
Kiley cited examples of that support:
Routine use of pre- and post-deployment health screenings and assess soldiers' mental as well as physical health;
A new post-deployment health assessment to assess mental and physical health three to six months after a soldier redeploys;
Mental- and behavioral-health specialists in theater who provide education, support and treatment, as needed, for deployed troops;
Mental health advisory teams that have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan four times to assess how troops are doing and how well the Army behavioral health services offered to them are working; and
Follow-up treatment and short- or long-term counseling, as needed, to help soldiers readjust after returning from a deployment.
In addition, Kiley will soon co-chair a new task force to examine mental-health issues in the armed forces. The 14-member task force, half of its members from within the Defense Department and half from outside the department, will submit a report to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in May, recommending ways to further improve mental-health care for servicemembers and their families, he said.
As it provides more mental-health services to its members, the Army is helping to erode the stigma that has been associated for too long with seeking those services, he said. He noted the irony that a soldier who thinks nothing of getting long-term treatment for a broken ankle or other physical ailment might be hesitant to care for "the most complex and fragile organ," the brain. Making mental-health screenings and services an integral part of the Army's health-care program is helping to change that culture, Kiley said.
"Our efforts in education, prevention and early treatment, in my experience, are unprecedented," Kiley said. "My goal is to ensure that every deployed and returning soldier receives the very best health care that they need."