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Military using unproven programs to take on mental illness

February 23, 2014 at 5:03 PM EDT
Nearly one thousand veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder each week. A recent report from the Institute of Medicine found that few of the military programs for preventing mental illness have been tested or proven effective. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with USA Today's Gregg Zoroya about the report's findings.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s estimated that nearly a thousand additional Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder every week. A report out Thursday by the Institute of Medicine said that despite dozens of programs by the military to help treat the mental illnesses that veterans suffer, few of them are proving effective. For more we’re joined by Gregg Zoroya of USA Today who has been covering this story. So the Department of Defense asked for this review, what did it find?

GREGG ZOROYA: Well it really was a review that was, the request was really built on something that happened last year. The Institute of Medicine had completed a four-year review of just how prevalent the problem was and they found that the numbers of folks that were ill were really kind of getting so large that both the Pentagon and the V.A. were having trouble staying ahead of it. So the Pentagon asked for this report. They wanted to know — we’ve got prevention programs out there, why aren’t they working? And essentially what this panel, from the Institute of Medicine, found was that while some of these ideas in theory made sense when they were introduced earlier in the war, that there really hadn’t been a strong enough effort by the Pentagon and by some of the branches to try to understand whether through some real strong scientific research whether the programs worked. And they found that in fact, they hadn’t.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Which ideas were they focusing on in the report?

GREGG ZOROYA: Well they had they looked, at kind of they built on a RAND study that had come out previously that identified about 94 of these programs that are out there. And from that they kind of focused on some of the key ones and I think at the top of their list was really kind of the grand daddy of all the programs and that’s an Army one called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, it’s now called Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness, and it costs quite a lot of money, it reaches hundreds of thousands of soldiers and they found that they didn’t think that it really worked.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so what’s the Army’s response to this, when they say this isn’t working? If it’s been used on a million different soldiers now.

GREGG ZOROYA: Well, they’re very defensive about it. They, in fact, think that it does work. They say they’re internal scoring shows it improves positive thinking, it kind of helps soldiers learn to thrive, helps them deal with adversity. They do admit — the Army does — that when they created the program in 2009, as the numbers of PTSD and suicide were beginning to rise, that they were trying to deal with prevention at that point and they’ve modified the program since then. It really isn’t so much a prevention program, they say now. They say it’s more to kind of improve the quality of soldiers lives, help them deal with adversity.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what is working? Have suicides gone down?

GREGG ZOROYA: No. Well, actually in this last year there was a reduction for the first time among active duty troops, those who are not guard and reserve, or on inactive status. They found that the numbers had dropped for the first time in almost 10 years, by about 20 percent within the army. And that was something they were very happy about, but it was a modest decline. It isn’t clear whether they’ve actually turned the corner , the army will say that themselves. and they still have large numbers, as you’ve already quoted, of folks who are developing PTSD. Some of the programs they say show promise. There was one small program the army has, called Battle Mine, which is designed to help soldiers deal with reintegration, helping them understand that what they go through in combat are feelings that others do, try to normalize those feelings. and that has been shown to have some modest benefits through peer reviewed research.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, Gregg Zoroya of USA today, thanks so much.

GREGG ZOROYA: My pleasure.