From The Day (New London, CT) editorial board:
As in all wars, loss of mental health has been a common injury for those who have seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The largest study on that point, conducted by researchers at the University of California and Veterans Affairs Medical Center, both of San Francisco, Calif., found that one-third of returning veterans treated at V.A. facilities between 2001 and 2005 were diagnosed with mental illness or psychological disorders.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression were the most common problems, and more than half of those seen suffered from multiple disorders. Returning with a mental illness is three times more likely for younger combatants, under the age of 24, than for those over 40.
Getting these returning soldiers the therapy they need as soon as possible is critical. Multiple studies have shown that those who recognize their mental problem, and seek and receive prompt treatment, have dramatically better outcomes than those who try to suppress their feelings and forestall getting help.
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In the interest of education, editorial quoted from in full.
In a speech at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Providence this week, Rhode Island Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy sought support for legislation he has introduced to make troops “battle mind ready.”
Among other things, he calls for military training to include instructing soldiers about mental diseases associated with combat experience to better prepare the combatants to self-diagnose emerging problems and get help.
A more debatable part of the bill is a proposal to subject soldiers to virtual-reality technology intended to expose them to the strain of combat, a form of desensitization meant to reduce the potential for mental health damage when soldiers are subjected to the pressure of actual warfare.
The use of this technique remains under study. Researchers at the Virtual Reality Medical Center in California have been conducting stress inoculation training research under a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an arm of the Pentagon. Virtual reality games and techniques were used to expose Marines to war-time experiences. The next step will be to compare rates of PTSD among troops that received the experimental training versus groups that did not.
Virtual reality scenarios are also being tried to treat soldiers already suffering from PTSD.
The intent of the bill — called the Psychological Kevlar Act — is good. The Department of Defense needs to do all it can to protect the mental health of those who serve the nation through military service. But experts, not politicians, are in the best position to decide on appropriate prevention and treatment. The responsibility of the nation, through its Congress, is to assure the money is available to pay for it.
Research and initiative when it comes to combat PTSD is very much welcomed; The Day's editors, however, have a valid concern when it comes to how we should be using virtual reality -- as therapy or as desensitizer?
I don't know the answer to that one, but the question is one that should be considered as we move forward with finding ways to best prepare and care for our troops as they go to war -- and as they work their way back home.