1 in 5 had illness before enlisting

Los Angeles TimesMarch 9, 2014 

Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. soldiers had a common mental illness, such as depression, panic disorder or ADHD, before enlisting in the Army, according to a new study that raises questions about the military’s assessment and screening of recruits.

More than 8 percent of soldiers had thought about killing themselves and 1.1 percent had a past suicide attempt, researchers found from confidential surveys and interviews with 5,428 soldiers at Army installations across the country.

The findings, published online Monday in two papers in JAMA Psychiatry, point to a weakness in the recruiting process, experts said. Applicants are asked about their psychiatric histories, and those with certain disorders or past suicide attempts are generally barred from service.

A third study looked at the increased suicide rate among soldiers from 2004 to 2009. The study, which tracked nearly 1 million soldiers, found that those who had been deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq had an increased rate of suicide.

But it also found that the suicide rate among soldiers who had never deployed also rose steadily during that time. The study did not explain the cause.

The number of suicides at Joint Base Lewis-McChord rose with the overall Army trend during the wars, climbing from five in 2005 to 13 in 2012. Last year, a dozen deaths at the base south of Tacoma were investigated as possible suicides.

The three studies are the first from a massive research initiative started in 2009 by the Army and the National Institutes of Mental Health in response to the surge in suicides.

In 2011, a representative sample of soldiers was extensively questioned and assessed for a history of eight common psychiatric disorders.

Traditionally, the Army has been psychologically healthier than the rest of society because of screening, fitness standards and access to health care. Soldiers committed suicide at about half the rate of civilians with similar demographics.

But researchers found that soldiers they interviewed had joined the Army with significantly higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder than those in the general population.

Most notably, more than 8 percent of soldiers entered the Army with intermittent explosive disorder, characterized by uncontrolled attacks of anger. It was the most common disorder in the study, with a pre-enlistment prevalence nearly six times the civilian rate.

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