Study finds alcohol abuse a problem in UK forces

LONDON Thu May 13, 2010 4:21am EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - British troops in Afghanistan or Iraq are far more likely to become alcohol abusers back home than fellow troops, but levels of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are stable, psychiatrists said on Thursday.

A large study by doctors from King's College London found that rates of PTSD among British armed forces were stable at around 4 percent, but there were higher rates of common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, and of alcohol misuse.

"Our view is that alcohol misuse is actually a greater problem for the armed forces than PTSD," said Simon Wessely of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's, who led the study.

The researchers noted that studies in the United States had found high levels PTSD among veterans returning from active service, and said those findings had led some to predict Britain too would suffer a "tidal wave" of mental health problems.

PTSD can stem from wartime trauma such as being wounded or seeing others hurt or killed. An estimated 180,000 troops have served in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.

The British study, published in the Lancet medical journal, used data from almost 10,000 UK troops. It was funded by the Ministry of Defense, but the researchers stressed that ministers had no other involvement in the work.

Around 4 percent suffered PTSD, 20 percent had symptoms of common mental disorders which would not normally need medical attention, and 13 percent were misusing alcohol, it found.

But troops who had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan were 22 percent more likely to abuse alcohol than those who had not.

"We're not seeing this tidal wave of mental health problems, as was predicted, and (our findings) definitely don't reflect what's being seen in the U.S," Nicola Fear, who also worked on the study, told a London briefing.

Wessely, however, warned that while rates of trauma stress were low, the sheer numbers of British troops deployed in recent years meant "more and more people with mental health problems" would be coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Services that care for veterans are going to get busier and are going to get a higher workload," he told the briefing. "The numbers will increase as long as the deployment continues."

"We will see more people -- but that does not mean a catastrophic decline in mental health."

A large U.S. study in 2007 found that U.S. male military veterans were twice as likely to commit suicide than people who had never been in the military.

Matthew Hotopf, also from King's, said the differences between the U.S. and the UK were "quite striking" and may be due to the fact that U.S. troops often deploy for longer periods -- up to 15 months, rather than the 6-month deployments usual for British forces.

Fear said the team found no increased prevalence of PTSD in soldiers who had been deployed more than once, but they did find a slight rise in rates of stress disorder as the time since troops' return from deployment increased.

"The longer you have been back from deployment, the more likely you are to report symptoms of PTSD," she said.

But she said this was "a very small increase" -- with the highest prevalence of PTSD reaching 6 percent in troops that had been back for up to 4 years.

(Editing by Steve Addison)

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