Data from the army’s Mental Health Advisory Team report indicate that about 12 percent of combat troops in Iraq and 17 percent of those in Afghanistan are taking prescription antidepressants or sleeping pills to help them cope.
The survey probably underestimates antidepressant use. But even if the Army numbers are correct, they could mean that as many as 20,000 troops in all services in the two regions were on such medications last fall.
Troops have historically been barred from using such drugs in combat, and soldiers have usually been prescreened for mental illnesses before enlisting. The increase in the use of medication among U.S. troops suggests the heavy mental and psychological price being paid by soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Military doctors have said that the drugs help to “conserve the fighting strength” of soldiers in combat. But at least one soldier, Sergeant Christopher LeJeune, said the drugs may be creating unfit soldiers.
"There were more than a few convoys going out in a total daze," LeJeune said. I can think of few events that even come close to causing the mental anguish that combat troops experience during war.
Even under the best circumstances it’s easy to understand how a person’s mental health could break down in wartime, but add in repeated combat tours and not enough time at home between deployments and you’re really asking for trouble.
Military troops are not machines, and in the face of so much repeated trauma their brains are doing what is only natural -- showing the wear and tear they’ve been through. Using prescription drugs to try and override this natural response may get a soldier up and ready for the next fight, but it certainly doesn’t address the cause or sustain him indefinitely.
Nor will it solve any of the emotional damage that’s been done.
In my opinion, these troops who are showing signs of mental illness and seeking help from the only resources they have available -- only to be fed mind-altering drugs in return -- are just one more casualty of the Iraq War.
If this doesn’t resemble a sinister plot out of some deranged made for TV conspiracy movie, I don’t know what else could qualify better.
The Military’s Concern is For the Mission, Not the Soldier
This is, of course, stating the obvious, but it bears repeating.
It should surprise no one that the military nods with approval when asked whether antidepressants and sleeping pills should be given to troops. They will applaud just about anything that keeps the troops going longer and stronger.
But in the case of antidepressants and sleeping pills, this is the equivalent of patching a leak at the Hoover Dam with super glue. Sooner or later, something’s gotta give.
Whether or not it’s the “right” thing to do all depends on how you look at it. If you’re a military strategist, perhaps it is “right” to medicate troops and keep them at the front lines, rather than to send them home to recover. But from my perspective as a doctor, and even as a human being, medicating these young soldiers for their deteriorating mental health is an atrocity.
Antidepressants and sleeping pills have potentially life-threatening side effects that, when coupled with combat, could be a fatal synergy. It’s bad enough to wake up drowsy from a sleeping pill when you’re in your own bed -- or to feel dazed from an antidepressant when you’re working in an office -- but if you’re depending on quick reaction times to save your life, well those pills could easily get you killed.
Not to mention that antidepressants have been linked to suicide in young adults aged 18-24, which is the prime age range of these combat troops.
Is it a coincidence that nearly 40 percent of Army suicide victims in 2006 and 2007 took psychotropic drugs, including antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft?
Not in my opinion.
If You or Someone You Love Has Just Returned From Military Duty …
Please make sure that they are taking steps to heal their emotional wounds. Left untended, emotional trauma like experiencing battle can lead to serious health problems down the road -- anything from cancer to heart attacks and depression is possible.
For anyone in the military, I highly suggest working with a practitioner of the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to restore and protect your mental health.
An optimized mental health strategy would do wonders to boost the military readiness of the United States, and giving troops access to simple and quick tools like EFT would provide greater energy, sense of purpose and overall positive emotions for soldiers, without any risky side effects.