Mental fallout among recent-war veterans

Among veterans of the latest military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq receiving medical care at Veterans Affairs facilities, nearly one-third display psychological problems that require mental-health treatment, according to a new survey.

A team led by internist Karen H. Seal of the San Francisco VA Medical Center examined the medical records of 103,788 veterans who had been evaluated for the first time at VA centers between Sept. 30, 2001, and Sept. 30, 2005.

About one-quarter of these vets received diagnoses of at least one mental disorder, Seal and her coworkers report in the March 12 Archives of Internal Medicine. Another 7 percent didn’t exhibit a full-blown mental disorder but still needed psychiatric treatment.

The most common mental diagnosis was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The 13,205 vets with this severe stress reaction accounted for half of those with mental disorders and 13 percent of all vets measured in the study. Similarly, the PTSD rate reached 15 percent among Vietnam vets measured more than a decade after that war ended (SN: 8/26/06, p. 141: Available to subscribers at Stress rate revised for Vietnam vets).

PTSD and other mental conditions occurred most often in the youngest vets, ages 18 to 24. The greater combat exposure in young soldiers of low rank contributed to this trend, the researchers suggest.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.