WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. soldiers are significantly more likely to report mental health problems six months after returning home from combat than on initial assessments, Army researchers said on Tuesday.
Soldiers reported greater concern about interpersonal conflicts, post-traumatic stress, depression and alcohol problems in the second mental health screening, the researchers said.
They also found that one in five active-duty soldiers and almost half of reserve soldiers were receiving or in need of mental health services after combat.
“The rates that we previously reported based on surveys taken immediately upon return from deployment substantially underestimate the mental health burden,” the military authors wrote in the report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“This study suggests that the mental health problems identified by Veterans Affairs clinicians in more than a quarter of recent combat veterans may have already been present within months of returning from war,” the researchers wrote.
Mental health problems and suicide rates have increased among U.S. troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a string of studies released this year.
Those studies, which include a Pentagon assessment, found the military has provided inadequate mental health resources to its service members.
The authors of the latest study said it points to the need for more resources for the Defense Department mental health system to help soldiers before they leave duty and transition to the Veterans Affairs Department’s health system.
The Army, the largest branch of the U.S. military and the one most strained by war, administers a mental health assessment just as soldiers return home from combat. It added a second one six months later after concerns that problems were being missed.
A check of results from the second screening given to more than 88,000 soldiers found that the mental health risk and the rate of referral for health services rose for active-duty and reserve soldiers between the first and second assessments.
For example, the study found some mental health risk among 27.1 percent of active-duty soldiers after the second assessment compared with 17 percent after the first.
Soldiers’ worries about interpersonal conflict -- such as disputes with their spouses -- increased the most, the study showed. About 14 percent of active-duty soldiers reported those concerns after being home six months compared with 3.5 percent immediately upon return.
The increase was larger among National Guard and Army Reserve forces, in line with other studies that found greater mental health problems among those part-time troops.
Of the reserve force, 35.5 percent were at some mental health risk six months after returning home compared with 17.5 percent on the first assessment, for example.
Editing by Xavier Briand