Independent staff association for regular, reserve and veteran UK armed forces personnel

Mental health in the armed forces

“Medical services face a tidal wave of servicemen suffering from mental trauma as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”, reported The Daily Telegraph. Other newspapers reporting the same study said that alcohol abuse is a bigger problem. An article on www.nhs.uk has a different take on research funded by the MoD and recently published in The Lancet. UPDATE: See also KCL press release 'Troops mental health stableTroops mental health stable', including link to summary of Lancet article.

This news is based on a survey of nearly 10,000 personnel in the UK armed forces, which looked at whether being deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan affects mental health.

In contradiction to the Telegraph’s report, this study actually found that rates of probable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are lower than might be expected. However, it did find that regular soldiers were at a significantly higher risk of alcohol misuse. Overall, the prevalence of mental health problems in the armed forces remained stable between 2003 and 2009 despite increasing deployment in foreign combat zones.

Though the low rates of PTSD are reassuring, the high-rates of alcohol misuse are more cause for concern. The researchers say that new alcohol policies have recently been introduced by all three services, but their effects have yet to be assessed. They suggest that any reduction in alcohol misuse among UK troops will need a fundamental change in attitudes, since within British military culture alcohol is seen as “aiding social interaction and unit cohesion”.

The article concludes that there are several points to note about the survey:

  • The researchers admit that only a limited number of people who were invited were willing to participate in the survey. They say that younger people and those of lower rank were less likely to take part. As this could have potentially skewed the results, the researchers say they used standard statistical techniques to take this imbalance into account.
  • They say that the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder is often overestimated based on self-reported questions compared with clinical interviews. As such, even the low prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder reported here is likely to be an overestimate.

One reassuring finding of this study is that rates of probable post-traumatic stress disorder are lower than might be expected. The high-rates of alcohol misuse is more cause for concern. The researchers say this is perhaps unsurprising given the predominance of young men in the military. Yet even when this factor was taken into account, levels of alcohol misuse overall were substantially higher than in the general population.

The researchers say that new alcohol policies have recently been introduced by all three services, but their effects have yet to be assessed. They suggest that any reduction in alcohol misuse among UK troops will need a fundamental change in attitudes, since within British military culture alcohol is seen as “aiding social interaction and unit cohesion”.

Medical, health, recovery

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