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Harry’s Take: U.S. Military must invest in psychiatry

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Last week, the Journal of the American Medical Association released its initial findings on the psychological state of U.S. soldiers. The three reports stated that one in five soldiers suffered regularly from mental illnesses before enlisting, including ADHD, depression and panic disorder. These findings present a damning indictment on the Pentagon that for too long has failed to tackle the long-term increase in military suicide caused by preventable mental health disorders. It is time for the military to invest in psychiatrists, not tanks.

The reports stated that the most commonly found psychological disorder among enlisted troops is “intermittent explosive disorder” — a phrase used by medical professionals to describe an unexpected outburst of rage, most commonly seen in post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers. Indeed, the American Psychiatric Association found that one in five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has PTSD. Even more worrying, during the course of the research for the report the suicide rate doubled among military service personnel from the civilian average in 2004 to an unprecedented 23 people per day in 2009, before decreasing to 22 people per day since 2013.

The researchers found that the military recruiting process is the main culprit in the rising suicide rate. They find the process to be completely inadequate in rooting out those who would be at-risk from increased levels of stress associated with the military regimented lifestyle and, furthermore, deployment. Over 8 percent of soldiers surveyed had suicidal thoughts before joining the military and 1.1 percent had previously attempted suicide. As Richard Kessler, a Harvard professor who led one of the studies, told The Los Angeles Times, “The question becomes, ‘How did these guys get in the Army?’”

The U.S. military has been simultaneously fighting two major wars and countless other operations in the last decade. It comes as no surprise that there had been an emphasis on meeting troop quotas regardless of their mental capacity. This neglect of mental health was a grave mistake, putting other servicemen in harm’s way and resulting in unnecessary fatalities. As the War in Afghanistan draws to a close, the U.S. military must refocus its attention away from the battlefield and toward the homefront. The power of the U.S. military is not in the number of warships it possesses, but in the physical and mental strength of its personnel. In a virtual town hall meeting last year, Gen. Ray Odierno, chief of staff to the army, said to the participants, “We remain committed to our families’ and soldiers’ quality of life and are dedicated to building and sustaining resilience of every soldier and family member.” He must now honor that commitment.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 10 print edition. Harry Brown is a staff columnist. Harry’s Take is published every Monday. Email him at [email protected]

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