JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – Officials at Joint Base Lewis-McChord believe they’re making progress against the stigma that keeps some soldiers from getting help for mental health issues.
More soldiers and military families are reaching out for mental health care at the base, and post-traumatic stress diagnoses and prescriptions for common antidepressants are on the rise at Madigan Army Medical Center, the News Tribune of Tacoma reported.
What’s not clear is how much of that increased pace is the result of distress caused by combat and long separations, and how much is the result of the sheer numbers of soldiers returning to the base from overseas. More than half of the base’s 40,000 service members were gone from mid-2009 to mid-2010.
“I think we’re actually starting to win this battle on stigma. People are way more willing to seek behavioral health than they used to be,” said Madigan’s commander, Col. Dallas Homas.
Doctors say they’re busier than ever counseling recent war veterans. Diagnoses for post-traumatic stress, acute stress disorder or an anxiety disorder increased 24 percent at Madigan, from 1,140 service members in 2009 to 1,418 service members in 2010. Thirty soldiers a day are visiting a drop-in mental health clinic there, up from about 20 a day before 18,000 soldiers returned from combat tours last year – the largest wave of homecomings of the last decade.
Prescriptions for common antidepressants went up 15 percent. The Army hospital filled 6,185 prescriptions in 2010, up from 5,401 in 2009. The number includes refills, meaning some service members are counted more than once.
Other mental health services targeted at military families also are getting heavy use, as counselors connect with thousands of people each month, according to data the News Tribune requested from Madigan.
Officials concede more work needs to be done, and some soldiers are still concerned about how it would affect their careers if word of a PTSD or other diagnosis gets out.
Nationally, the Army saw suicides peak two years ago, when 162 active-duty soldiers killed themselves. Nine Lewis-McChord soldiers committed suicide in each of the past two years, up from seven in 2008.
Officers also track signs of distress, such as drunken driving arrests and domestic violence reports. They’ve increased recently, too, but not in a dramatic spike that would signal a “meltdown” among soldiers.
At Lewis-McChord, officials added 55 behavioral health specialists, such as psychologists and social workers, between January 2010 and January 2011.
Madigan now has 189.5 employees in that field, giving it one of the most robust networks of mental health support in the Army. Fort Hood, a base in Texas with 8,000 more service members than Lewis-McChord, has 141 such specialists.
“I don’t care how long it takes; we’ll see every soldier who comes in,” said Col. Jerome Penner, who led Madigan for the past two years before handing over his command to Homas in April.
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