Gulf War

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Mental Health Toll Rising for U.S. War Veterans, Research Shows

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By David Olmos

July 17 (Bloomberg) -- More than one-third of U.S. veterans returning from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan were diagnosed with mental health problems, putting the military at risk of an epidemic similar to the post-Vietnam War era, a study found.

About 37 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who sought treatment at U.S. health facilities from 2002 to 2008 were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD, depression, alcohol abuse or other mental conditions, said researchers at theSan Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center and the University of California, San Francisco.

More than 1.6 million U.S. soldiers have served since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, many of whom have been exposed to prolonged combat and multiple tours of duty, according to the study. In an earlier, smaller study, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs researchers found that 25 percent of U.S. veterans who sought treatment from 2001 to 2005 suffered from mental health disorders.

“It’s fair to say that there is a striking rise in numbers” between the earlier study and the new data published yesterday, said Karen Seal, the principal author and a staff physician at the Veterans Affairs hospital in San Francisco.

The diagnoses of mental health disorders, especially post- traumatic stress, increased sharply after the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, the study found. Among veterans who visited department health centers in the first three months of 2004, 14.6 percent were diagnosed with a mental disorder. After four years, diagnoses among those same veterans had risen to nearly 28 percent, the study found.

Delayed Symptoms

It often may take more than a year for symptoms of mental disorders to appear and diagnoses to be made, Seal said. In January 2008, Congress extended combat veteran health benefits to five years from two years.

“It sometimes takes time, given the stigma associated with mental illness, before we are able to break through the barriers and have patients tell us what is happening,” said Seal, who co-directs the primary-care clinic for Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers at the San Francisco veterans hospital.

More than 289,000 veterans of the two wars sought treatment during the six-year period studied.

Post-Vietnam ‘Epidemic’

The high number of mental health disorders puts the U.S. at risk of “an epidemic of chronic mental illness, as occurred with Vietnam veterans,” the study’s authors wrote.

A study published in 1990, Trauma and the Vietnam War Generation, found almost 1 million men, or about 31 percent of the soldiers who served in Vietnam, were diagnosed with post- traumatic stress disorder. More than one-fourth had symptoms of the illness up to 20 years after their active-duty service.

Seal and her colleagues found that 22 percent of the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were diagnosed with post- traumatic stress during the study period, while 17 percent were treated for depression and 7 percent for alcohol abuse.

Active-duty soldiers younger than age 24 were at the highest risk of being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and drug and alcohol disorders. The study also found that National Guard or Reserves veterans age 30 and older were more likely to be diagnosed with the stress disorder and depression than younger National Guard members and reservists. Women were more likely than men to be diagnosed with depression, the researchers said.

The authors recommended screening and early intervention programs that would target mental health problems of specific groups of soldiers, such as women and younger men.

The study was published yesterday on the Web site of The American Journal of Public Health.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Olmos in San Francisco at