Study Finds Rates of PTSD Among Soldiers Lower Than Expected

The occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been linked to many types of trauma, but in the public perception, it may be most strongly associated with military service. Deployment, especially to battle zones, may increase the likelihood that a soldier will experience or witness significant trauma.

PTSD is characterized by difficulty sleeping, anxiety and the presence of flashbacks to the traumatic event. It can be difficult to treat, especially among patients that also have co-occurring disorders like depression or addiction.

A new study conducted by Harvard researchers finds that PTSD may not be as widespread among military personnel returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan as previously believed. The authors theorize that efforts made by the Army to prevent the disorder and to treat existing diagnoses may deserve the credit for the improved results.

Led by Dr. Richard J. McNally, the study finds that the occurrence of PTSD is much lower than estimates that predicted PTSD affecting approximately 30 percent of the deployed troops. The current study finds that PTSD rates are loser to the range of 2.1 to 13.8 percent. The findings appear in a recent issue of the journal Science.

The survey of American troops is the most complete examination of PTSD and it finds that approximately 4.3 percent of all military who have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq meet criteria for PTSD. The rate increases for those who witness combat, at 7.6 percent.

McNally explains that awareness of PTSD has significantly improved in recent years, with the military and Veteran’s Administration working to develop programs to address prevention and treatment. McNally believes that the military is making great strides to overcome the impact of PTSD on its personnel.

The earlier estimate of 30 percent was taken from findings of the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS), which was conducted in 1990. It found that a large percentage of Vietnam veterans met criteria for PTSD. Though later examination reduced that estimate, the study’s findings served as a catalyst for major improvement in treating the impact of trauma.

McNally says that some of the reduction in current PTSD cases may be due to the less lethal nature of more recent wars. During a ten-year period in Iraq, for instance, there have been fewer than 5,000 American troops killed, compared with over 55,000 deaths in a ten-year period in Vietnam.

In addition, efforts by the Army have been successful at treating PTSD earlier and providing the best possible treatment to those suffering.

McNally also notes that even without witnessing a battle during deployment, just the stress of separation from family and the stresses that come with parenting from afar and managing a family from afar can be very difficult for deployed soldiers. When a traumatic situation is added in, the struggle with PTSD can be very challenging.