Policy fraught with danger

Since the start of the Iraq war in 2003, the rate of suicide among U.S. Army soldiers has soared, according to a study by the U.S. Army Public Health Command.

The study shows an 80 percent increase in suicides among Army personnel between 2004 and 2008, ABC News reported. The rise parallels increasing rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions in soldiers, the study said. The high number of suicides are “unprecedented in over 30 years of U.S. Army records,” the researchers wrote.

With suicides at Joint Base Lewis-McChord mirroring the national problem — including five suicides last summer in an eight-week period — Washington Sen. Patty Murray last month began an investigation into whether military hospitals are denying treatment to service members with post-traumatic stress disorder because of cost considerations, The News Tribune of Tacoma reported.

In the midst of all this, on March 11, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly went on his rampage in Afghanistan, killing 17 civilians. Bales spent more than a decade based at Lewis-McChord and previously deployed three times to Iraq. He will be examined to determine whether he is mentally fit to stand trial.

Now the Los Angeles Times reports on a contributing factor to the mental health problems plaguing all branches of the military that has not been part of the discussion — the heavy use of psychotropic drugs to keep troops going.

In a small but growing number of cases, lawyers are blaming their clients’ illegal behavior and related health problems on the medications, the paper reported.

“We have never medicated our troops to the extent we are doing now. … And I don’t believe the current increase in suicides and homicides in the military is a coincidence,” said Bart Billings, a former military psychologist.

With most soldiers serving multiple deployments, creating growing levels of combat stress, more than 110,000 active-duty Army troops last year were taking prescribed antidepressants, narcotics, amphetamines, sedatives, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety drugs, according to figures from the U.S. Army surgeon general, the L.A. Times reported. This is a total reversal in military policy. “Prior to the Iraq war, soldiers could not go into combat on psychiatric drugs, period. Not very long ago, going back maybe 10 or 12 years, you couldn’t even go into the armed services if you used any of these drugs, in particular stimulants,” Peter Breggin, a New York psychiatrist, told the paper.

Like forcing repeated deployments, supplying psychotropic medications to troops without thorough monitoring and follow-up by medical and mental health professionals shows a shocking lack of concern for the troops we send back to combat again and again.

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