Saturday, August 18, 2007

Depression and the Military's License to Ill

(cc) atomicjeepIn this rapid fire world of sound byte journalism, a new report claims that mentally ill soldiers are being propped up on meds and redeployed without counseling. Is it true?

According to The Hartford Courant, "the U.S. military is sending troops with serious psychological problems into Iraq and is keeping soldiers in combat even after superiors have been alerted to suicide warnings and other signs of mental illness." If true, these are damning allegations to make during a time when public support is strained at best for a lengthy war.

Following a link from, I followed the trail further past the Christian Science Monitor to the original source itself: The Hartford Courant. What I found at first seemed to be a string of strawman style arguments linked together with unfounded claims, but after the hyperbole the article settled into some very thorough reporting - six pages long. There was much there to be concerned about, if true.

We live in a super pill society where an incredible amount of faith is placed on a pharmaceutical solution for any problem. Side-effects are often down played (at least in my experience) and the benefits of the medications are celebrated. You, too, can be cured with absolutely no effort on your part - just stay medicated for life! Is it any wonder why Big Pharma is big business?

The problem with this approach, aside from being naive and irresponsible, is that it is also potentially harmful over time to the psyche. Pills don't make psychological issues go away - they mask them and reduce them. Technically, one should use the pill as a crutch to limp along to a healthier mental state. Instead, pills are pushed as magic elixirs. All too often the medications are casually used as cures with no effort made to pursue cognitive training or psychological evaluation. As the Hartford Courant discovered, this magic elixir helped prop up soldiers to be sent back out into combat.

I definitely recommend reading the article. It is a fantastic example of the dangers of relying on medication alone to fix complicated mental problems. When there is pressure to fill the ranks during war time with a poor understanding of mental health or an unhealthy dependence on psychotropics to replace counseling, there will be abuses. However, I should caution my readers that like any media report, there is undoubtedly bias and sensationalism present in the report.

For example, the article claims that the "Military data show that deaths in Iraq due to all non-combat causes, such as accidents, rose by 32 percent from 2004 to 2005." This statistic by itself sounds alarming until other facts are correlated. Did you know that "Army statistics show that 59 soldiers killed themselves in Iraq through the end of last year - 25 in 2003, 12 in 2004, and 22 in 2005. Twelve Marine deaths also have been ruled self-inflicted." By these statistics, suicide is down 12% from 2003, but The Hartford Courant didn't bother reporting that as a fact.

The article further states that "Of the more than 500 non-combat deaths among all service branches since the start of the war, gunshot wounds were the second-leading cause of death, behind vehicle crashes but ahead of heart attacks and other medical ailments." This is a statistic meant to support the weight of their claim that suicide is on the rise and is worse than heart attacks and, for example, gout. But what do these numbers really mean? That more servicemen outside of combat died by gunshot wounds than heart attacks? Is this a surprise? They are at war. Those soldiers are equipped with weapons that use bullets to kill things. There are bound to be accidents involving bullets outside of combat. This is a weak and specious argument at best.

The strength of the article is found deeper within where soldiers suffering from mental disabilities give testimony of how they were deployed despite their mental conditions. The authors of the article could be guilty of cherry picking the worst case scenarios. They certainly didn't quote any soldiers who were diagnosed, medicated, and did just dandy in the theater of war. Still, personally knowing how casual many doctors are when prescribing psychotropics, I wonder if there is a bit of truth to their claims. I welcome any heightened scrutiny in regards to this matter. Pills should not be used to replace healing and therapy. The prescribing of these mind-altering medications to young men who will be unsupervised while on the dosage is, frankly, irresponsible.

Personally, some aspects of the report reek of sensationalism and manipulation. I will remain skeptical until the report's findings can be verified by additional sources. However, if the allegations are true and young men are being pushed out into battle when they are not mentally fit, then heads should roll. Especially when some of those men take their own lives to escape the pain and anxiety of modern combat.

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