New results published in the British Journal of Psychiatry suggest that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be on the rise in service personnel. The condition, associated with exposure to trauma, has long been long linked with combat. But this new study highlights just how much Veterans may be at a higher risk than active soldiers.
But to really show what this means, I also talked to a veteran, who was kind enough to explain what PTSD feels like beyond the data.
I knew that something was different after my six-month tour of Afghanistan. It was really difficult to go from an environment where I fighting in close quarters with the enemy on nearly a daily basis, to an extended Christmas break with my family in a quiet suburb. At new year we had guests and I didn’t even go downstairs to see them. It was tough interacting with people who had no idea what I had gone through. I just couldn’t understand why people would get so angry over the little things or first-world problems; I still don’t today. – Soldier X
Worse mental health outcomes
A cohort study compared over 8000 personnel either deployed to Afghanistan and/or Iraq, with those active but not deployed, and those newly active since 2009. The study reviewed the participants in three phases, collecting data on mental health symptoms and level of alcohol use during the study period.
The first phase examined soldiers deployed to Iraq, then the second followed these up and added those deployed to further conflict, and a third to new soldiers as well as those already under review.
The study found that, overall, 21% of those reviewed displayed symptoms of common mental health disorders (such as depression,) and that those who had been deployed to the conflict were at a higher risk. 6.1% of those surveyed showed signs of probable PTSD, with a significantly higher risk in those who had seen active duty.
I was in a close-combat role for six months, which was really intensive both physically and mentally. I was also responsible for the lives of 28 soldiers and I had to make tough decisions daily; which at the time was a lot of pressure for a 25-year old. I know the decision-making really affected me because its something I still think about a lot and often run the scenarios through my head with “what ifs”. – Soldier X
All in all, the overall risk was 9% for veterans and 5% for those still serving, and higher in combat roles and support roles such as logistics and medical personnel. However, the study also showed that alcohol abuse rates have dropped during the same time period.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD is a mental health condition characterised by the emergence of unsettling or traumatic symptoms from short months to years after a severely troubling event. Those who develop the condition may report a combination of symptoms, either ‘reliving’ the event in some way such as through flashbacks or nightmares, or through ‘numbing’ by avoiding emotional subjects or addressing their symptoms.
It took me nearly three years to talk to someone about it and get some help. I still don’t talk to my partner or family about it; I find it easier to talk to professionals or put it in writing. The hardest part about asking for help was that I didn’t think I needed or deserved it, there were plenty of other soldiers that I knew of who had been through far worse experiences and were not seeking help – so why should I? – Soldier X
The link with military work has been long known and likely due to the intense and terrifying experiences. And the legacy is one that is unfortunately predictable. But this new study sheds light on how PTSD may develop, not as something that primarily affects soldiers, but preferentially affects those who have survived and come home.
It may very much be that the evolutionary antecedents to our survival, forged long ago in the heat of prey vs predator, have become maladaptive. Or indeed, never had the chance to become adaptive over time. Repeated exposure to life and limb trauma is not a natural state which can be readily traced back beyond tribal warfare, as survival was much less guaranteed.
Perhaps a study like this, which highlights the true cost of war to the victor, can help us learn that suffering is ubiquitous in theme, just different in nature.
PTSD is always going to happen in war. There will always be traumatic events, but I think we could deal with them a lot better. Mental health became the elephant in the room in my Battalion, with some soldiers suffering from horrific cases of PTSD. One of the reasons it took me so long to talk about it was because it took 13 months to see a mental health professional after I requested it. – Soldier X
What’s next? Join our wonderful community!
- Subscribe to our mailing list. We publish regularly, and we wouldn’t want you to miss our great content.
- Contact Dr Janaway on Twitter, always happy to welcome new colleagues.
- If you liked this article, please help us to reach more people by clicking the icons below.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr. Full informed consent was gained for interview and distribution of content obtained during the interview. All profits from this article will go to the Poppy Appeal.