June 16, 2007

Mental Health Problems Come Home

The Iraq War has been especially hard on the soldiers who have served. A new Pentagon Task Force reports that almost 40% of the troops have experienced some type of psychological problem. And as Daniel Zwerdling reported yesterday, the task force has actually found that between 20-25% of the returning soldiers are experiencing serious mental health problems and there aren't enough resources to adequately deal with this growing crisis.

Zwerdling noted that the report points to these three problems:

  • the attitude of many in the military believes these problems denote individual weakness and character problems which causes many soldiers to refuse to ask for help or when they do, many are punished as slackers
  • there are insufficient resources for dealing with the numbers of soldiers who are experiencing problems: too little money available, too few mental health personnel, and worse, many mental health professionals are leaving the services in droves
  • a serious lack of training
    • Soldiers were given no training about what they might face
    • Leaders aren't trained well in the types of problems that soldiers could come back with and why
    • Even the doctors are not trained well in understanding the reasons soldiers can be affected

How many of our returning soldiers are experiencing PTSD? Many more than our society is willing to admit. Today, Susan G wrote a glowing review of the new book by Ilona Meagher, "Moving a Nation to Care". Ilona is an inspiring American citizen who saw a serious problem, worked to educate herself and others about the problem of PTSD and then spoke out in a moving and constructive way that can lead our country do a better job of supporting those who have fought in our wars. Her book comes at the same time as the Pentagon report, and gives weight to the issues that we need to address.

Beyond PTSD, traumatic brain injury is another often times invisible wound from today's wars. As the San Jose Mercury News reported, the shock waves from the bombs that soldiers are encountering can cause disabling neurological disorders without leaving any physical signs.

About 1,800 U.S. service members, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, are now suffering from traumatic brain injuries caused by penetrating wounds. But neurologists worry that hundreds of thousands more - at least 30 percent of the troops who have engaged in active combat for four months or longer in Iraq and Afghanistan - are at risk of potentially disabling neurological disorders from the blast waves of IEDs and mortars, without suffering a scratch.

...Here's why IEDS carry such hidden danger. The detonation of any powerful explosive generates a blast wave of high pressure that spreads out at 1,600 feet per second from the point of explosion and travels hundreds of yards. The lethal blast wave is a two-part assault that rattles the brain against the skull. The initial shock wave of high pressure is followed closely by the "secondary wind:" a huge volume of displaced air flooding back into the area, again under high pressure. No helmet or armor can defend against such a massive wave front.

It is these sudden and extreme differences in pressures - routinely 1,000 times greater than atmospheric pressure - that lead to significant neurological injury. Blast waves cause severe concussions, resulting in loss of consciousness and obvious neurological deficits such as blindness, deafness and mental retardation. Blast waves causing traumatic brain injuries can leave a 19-year-old private who could easily run a six-minute mile unable to stand or even think.

..."TBIs (traumatic brain injuries) from Iraq are different," said P. Steven Macedo, a neurologist and former doctor at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Concussions from motorcycle accidents injure the brain by stretching or tearing it, he noted. But in Iraq, something else is going on. "When the sound wave moves through the brain, it seems to cause little gas bubbles to form," he said. "When they pop, it leaves a cavity. So you are littering people's brains with these little holes."

Almost as daunting as treating traumatic brain injuries is the volume of such injuries coming out of Iraq. Macedo cited the estimates, gleaned at seminars with VA doctors, that as many as one-third of all combat forces are at risk of TBI. Military physicians have learned that significant neurological injuries should be suspected in any individuals exposed to a blast, even if they were far from the explosion. Indeed, soldiers walking away from IED blasts have discovered that they often suffer from memory loss, short attention spans, muddled reasoning, headaches, confusion, anxiety, depression and irritability.

And we don't even know how to heal these injuries. This bellicose administration has done everything they could to skimp on the dollars that go to funding the troops or their care after they come home so they could pour our tax dollars into boondoggles like Star-wars and enriching their friends. It is time to bring our soldiers home and to provide the resources to heal those we can, research what can be done for those who are suffering neurological injuries, provide support and help for those who will never get better, and guarantee we never again allow the warmongers to send our troops into a war of choice.

Posted by Mary at June 16, 2007 03:08 PM | Health/Medicine/Health Care | Technorati links |

One Iraq veteran says, "I can't believe it took them this long to figure that out," and actually supports mandatory mental health checkups every six months.

- Michael from The U.S. Desk at TheNewsRoom.com

Posted by: Michael at June 16, 2007 10:19 PM