July 17, 2007 / 7:50 PM / in 11 years

Army starts stress program but lacks resources

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army will start training all soldiers on Wednesday to recognize signs of post-traumatic stress and seek help when needed, but it still lacks the mental health resources to treat those troops.

About 1.5 million U.S. service members have been sent to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. Repeated and extended deployments to those war zones have driven up the need for mental health services.

But the military’s mental health system is too short of funds and staff to help service members, according to the Pentagon and the American Psychological Association, which found more than 30 percent of all soldiers met the criteria for a mental disorder.

Starting on Wednesday, the Army plans to train every service member, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, within 90 days to gauge symptoms in themselves and those around them.

While the program -- a one-hour briefing to be delivered in small groups -- is expected to boost the number of soldiers reporting symptoms of stress, the Army has too few mental health professionals to treat them.

Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist and the Army’s expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, said the Army needs to hire another 270 people to treat mental illness. “We also know that it’s a challenge to hire in many locations so I‘m not sure if we’re going to get 270,” she said.

To alleviate the crunch, the Army is using chaplains to help provide counseling and mental health referrals.

Ritchie said the Army wants to catch symptoms early so soldiers do not live with combat-related stress for years, as have many veterans of previous wars.

“We don’t want another Vietnam,” Ritchie said on Tuesday.

“We don’t want people with chronic symptoms who first present 15, 20, 25 years later when it’s really hard to get rid of the symptoms. We want to take care of them, help the person, right away.”

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