WASHINGTON – The
military's mental health system falls far short of meeting
the needs of troops and their families, especially at a
time when the nation is engaged in the most sustained
combat since the Vietnam War, a Pentagon task force
The 14-member panel, made up of military and civilian
professionals with expertise in military mental health,
said more funding and staff are necessary to improvement
“We concentrate a great deal on physical health; that
is how fast can you run a mile, how many sit-ups and
push-ups can you do,” Vice Adm. Donald Arthur, who
co-chaired the task force, said at a news conference
yesterday. “But we don't often concentrate on the
psychological health of the service member.”
The report listed 95 recommendations to bolster
psychological services, though it did not identify overall
levels of staffing or funding needed. That will be left to
the Pentagon, which has six months to develop a corrective
plan under a mandate from Congress.
“Clearly, we have a deficit in our availability of
mental health providers,” Arthur said.
The ongoing “surge” of more than 30,000 additional U.S.
troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will exacerbate this gap,
as will the rapid growth in the number of soldiers,
Marines and other troops who have served more than one
combat tour, heightening the risk of mental illnesses, the
The task force, which began work last June, based its
report on visits to 38 U.S. military care facilities –
including several in San Diego – in the United States,
Europe and Asia; interviews with care providers, military
personnel and their families and commanders; as well as
expert testimony and research.
It found that 38 percent of soldiers, 31 percent of
Marines, 49 percent of Army National Guard members and 43
percent of Marine Reservists reported symptoms of PTSD,
anxiety, depression or other problems, according to
military surveys completed this year by service members 90
and 120 days after returning from deployments.
Traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress
disorder are two “signature injuries” that have emerged
from the current conflicts, according to the report.
While Congress recently approved $900 million for PTSD
and traumatic brain injury as part of the emergency war
funds bill, this is only a start, said Ward Casscells, the
assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
Casscells also said the Army's plan to hire 200 mental
health professionals involved a “good round number” but
may not be enough. The Army says it employs 600 to 800
such professionals, including civilians and contractors.
The task force stressed the need to remove the
“pervasive” stigma associated with seeking help for
battle-induced stress or PTSD. Surveys of troops serving
in Iraq and Afghanistan show that more than half believe
their careers would suffer if they sought counseling, even
though mental health experts say stress is a normal
reaction to combat.
Arthur acknowledged the challenge in convincing troops
that seeking help will not undermine their advancement or
harm their reputation.
He said the key to convincing them lies with
“We are all different as human beings and I think that
these differences need to be recognized,” Arthur said. “We
have some people who are very hardy in their response to
stress and others who are not. They are equally valuable
as service members.”
Proposals by the task force to reduce stigma include
programs to give military leaders greater understanding of
psychological health, a broader public education campaign,
embedding health-care providers with units and offering
treatment at primary medical care facilities, where
service members can seek psychological help without
singling themselves out.
Improved access to mental health services and closing
gaps in the continuum of care also are identified as
priorities. The report urges the Pentagon to establish a
seven-day standard for getting mental health treatment,
the same as required for primary care services.
In the course of its research, the congressionally
commissioned task force visited military installations
including Camp Pendleton, the San Diego Naval Base and
Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. It also held nine
hearings across the nation, including one in San Diego
Shelley M. MacDermid, a Purdue University professor and
co-chair of the task force, credited the military health
system with “many examples of excellence.”
But she added, “There are urgent matters that need
The 99-page report said the “global war on terrorism”
has created unforeseen demands on the mental health
system, which has lacked a “wartime focus.”
“As such, the system of care for psychological health
that has evolved over recent decades is insufficient to
meet the needs of today's forces and their beneficiaries,
and will not be sufficient to meet their needs in the
future,” the report said.
The Washington Post
and Reuters contributed to this report.