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Army Releases Mental Health Advisory Team V Report
by Jerry Harben
A team of Army behavioral-health professionals found the overall risk of mental-health problems among Soldiers deployed to Iraq unchanged in 2007 compared to 2006. Soldiers serving their third or fourth deployment, however, were more likely to report such problems than those on their first or second deployments. Soldiers in Afghanistan, in contrast, reported significantly higher rates of mental-health problems in 2007 than in 2005, reaching rates similar to those in Iraq.
The Army Surgeon General has dispatched five Mental Health Advisory Teams (MHAT) to southwest Asia since 2003. In October and November last year, the latest team (MHAT V) surveyed 2,279 Soldiers and 350 behavioral health, primary care and unit ministry team members in Iraq. In Afghanistan, they surveyed 889 Soldiers and 87 care providers. They also conducted focus groups and examined records.
The teams were led by research psychologists from Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) and included officers and enlisted behavioral-health specialists. Heading the project was Lt. Col. Paul D. Bliese, chief of military psychiatry at WRAIR.
Major findings include:
Recommendations by the team included augmenting military behavioral-health providers in theater with civilian personnel, increasing time between deployments, providing marital and Family counseling as a TRICARE® benefit and more focused suicide-prevention training.
Bliese said Army leaders both in theater and at the Pentagon had been receptive to the team's recommendations.
"The issues are whether the recommendations are feasible and can be implemented. That doesn't mean every recommendation will be implemented, but Army leaders certainly are receptive to the ideas," he said.
Bliese said reported shortages of behavioral-health providers in Iraq "is a good news-bad news story."
"One reason they felt short of personnel is that commanders are relying on their providers to have very active preventive outreach programs. Additional outreach missions can lead to shortages of resources," he said.
To address these shortages, he said behavioral-health assets are reallocated within the theater to areas of greatest need. Also, combat medics, while not mental-health specialists, can receive more training to help them feel comfortable as first responders. Finally, he believes some civilian care providers can be hired to supplement the military personnel.
"There's no reason we can't send contractors or (government civilian employees) to the large forward operating bases, and let active duty personnel do outreach to the units. That would really help out. My impression is there is a number of retired military and some Veterans Affairs employees who would like to do this and get a feel for what that environment is like," Bliese said.
Pre-deployment Battlemind training tells Soldiers what they are likely to see, to hear, to think and to feel while deployed. The Army also has a post-deployment module for spouses, and several post-deployment modules to help Soldiers adjust when they return home.
"It is now Army policy to give Battlemind training to everyone deploying. Some of the units we surveyed were in theater before that policy, so we had a distribution of troops that had and had not received the training," Bliese said. "There is a straight-forward question on the survey asking how well prepared the troops believe they were for deployment. Those who had Battlemind training thought they were better prepared. It's encouraging."
"I think (the training) helps because it gives the Soldiers a realistic preview of what they will encounter and helps them prepare," he added. "It gives Soldiers some common ground to talk about things and it takes some of the mystery out of deployment."
There appears to be a small, but steady, decrease in reports of Soldiers reluctant to seek care because of stigma associated with mental-health care.
"I have the feeling this is a good-news story," said Bliese. "There now have been five years of consistent messages from the Army's senior leadership about the importance of getting mental-health care if needed. We're not seeing huge changes, but a trend of steady improvement. I think that is due to emphasis by military leaders."
In the first month of deployment, about 10 percent of married junior enlisted Soldiers reported they planned a marital separation or divorce. By the 15th month of deployment this increased to 30 percent. NCOs and officers had lower rates, although also increasing over the deployment.
One recommendation is for TRICARE®, the military health-insurance program, to cover marital counseling, so Soldiers can go outside the military system and be reimbursed for the expense.
"The Army has been active in getting Family life counselors on posts. Anything that can be done to help the Families is important," Bliese said.
The text of the MHAT V report will be available on the Army Medicine Website.