Longitudinal assessment of mental health problems among active and reserve component soldiers returning from the Iraq war

JAMA. 2007 Nov 14;298(18):2141-8. doi: 10.1001/jama.298.18.2141.


Context: To promote early identification of mental health problems among combat veterans, the Department of Defense initiated population-wide screening at 2 time points, immediately on return from deployment and 3 to 6 months later. A previous article focusing only on the initial screening is likely to have underestimated the mental health burden.

Objective: To measure the mental health needs among soldiers returning from Iraq and the association of screening with mental health care utilization.

Design, setting, and participants: Population-based, longitudinal descriptive study of the initial large cohort of 88 235 US soldiers returning from Iraq who completed both a Post-Deployment Health Assessment (PDHA) and a Post-Deployment Health Re-Assessment (PDHRA) with a median of 6 months between the 2 assessments.

Main outcome measures: Screening positive for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression, alcohol misuse, or other mental health problems; referral and use of mental health services.

Results: Soldiers reported more mental health concerns and were referred at significantly higher rates from the PDHRA than from the PDHA. Based on the combined screening, clinicians identified 20.3% of active and 42.4% of reserve component soldiers as requiring mental health treatment. Concerns about interpersonal conflict increased 4-fold. Soldiers frequently reported alcohol concerns, yet very few were referred to alcohol treatment. Most soldiers who used mental health services had not been referred, even though the majority accessed care within 30 days following the screening. Although soldiers were much more likely to report PTSD symptoms on the PDHRA than on the PDHA, 49% to 59% of those who had PTSD symptoms identified on the PDHA improved by the time they took the PDHRA. There was no direct relationship of referral or treatment with symptom improvement.

Conclusions: Rescreening soldiers several months after their return from Iraq identified a large cohort missed on initial screening. The large clinical burden recently reported among veterans presenting to Veterans Affairs facilities seems to exist within months of returning home, highlighting the need to enhance military mental health care during this period. Increased relationship problems underscore shortcomings in services for family members. Reserve component soldiers who had returned to civilian status were referred at higher rates on the PDHRA, which could reflect their concerns about their ongoing health coverage. Lack of confidentiality may deter soldiers with alcohol problems from accessing treatment. In the context of an overburdened system of care, the effectiveness of population mental health screening was difficult to ascertain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism / diagnosis*
  • Alcoholism / epidemiology*
  • Combat Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Combat Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / diagnosis
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Iraq War, 2003-2011*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Mass Screening
  • Mental Health Services / statistics & numerical data*
  • Mental Health*
  • Military Personnel*
  • Needs Assessment*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / diagnosis
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / epidemiology
  • United States