Soldiers fight the PTSD battle at home

TEXAS A&M (US) —Deployed soldiers in high-risk situations have nearly identical reports of emotional and psychological problems as their stateside counterparts, a finding that raises new questions about the onset of PTSD.

The research, published in the journal Psychological Assessment, may point to mechanisms that help deployed troops adapt and that are no longer available once they return home from combat.

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Leslie Morey, professor of psychology at Texas A&M University, in collaboration with the U.S. Army, studies the potential development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and cognitive problems in deployed troops who have suffered from combat-related concussions.

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Army researchers were using the Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI), created by Morey in 1991, to compare troops within the same unit who had received concussions and those who had not.

The responses of the control group—those soldiers who had not received concussions but were selected to represent the typical effects of combat stresses—were surprisingly normal, leading to an important additional focus for the study.

“Nobody had ever done a comprehensive study of the psychological effects of being in a combat unit, attempting to distinguish what might be PTSD versus what is the normative response in these situations,” Morey says.

Morey, graduate student Sara Lowmaster, and an Army research team evaluated 103 soldiers in three Iraqi cities—Baghdad, Mosul, and Balad—throughout 2009.

The researchers used Morey’s PAI to observe a wide range of psychological experiences and problems that the troops might have, including depression, traumatic stress, anger control, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety. A sample of U.S. civilians took the same survey, allowing Morey to make comparisons between each individual soldier and his or her stateside equivalent.

“I could select a person living in the U.S. who was the same age, same gender, and had the same education to compare to a soldier deployed in Iraq,” Morey says.

“Despite the fact that these troops are thousands of miles away from home, living in tents on runways, and having things blow up around them, their psychological functioning is nearly identical to someone their own age and gender who is in the United States.”

The study’s findings can be helpful for future research into the rates of PTSD, which are almost three times higher in men and women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq than that of the general population, Morey says.

“If these folks look so typical in combat situations and rates of PTSD are so much higher when they return, this might help us better understand what’s going on there.

“Is PTSD something that emerges once you’re away from the support and immediacy of your unit and back in an environment that’s not normative for you anymore?”

The research has the potential to help understand the development of PTSD and to develop prevention and intervention techniques for returning soldiers. It may also point to the importance of the sense of community within a deployed unit, noting different patterns of behavior exhibited by British troops.

“British troops appear to have much less lower PTSD rates than U.S. troops. The British keep each returning unit intact and have them go through a sort of decompression out of the combat zone before they return to the UK.

“When you’re in the field and something happens to the unit, everyone experiences it. There is a sense of collective experience that becomes normalized, but then you return stateside to a group that doesn’t have those same experiences. The answer may lie in better handling that transition.”

The research was funded in part by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.

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