PTSD ‘surprisingly low’ in UK troops in Iraq

The Institute of Psychiatry hasjust published the resultsfrom the first survey of post-traumatic stress disorder in UK troops serving in Iraq, and found that only around 3% of troops reported suffering from the symptoms of PTSD – lower than the incidence found in police officers or doctors working in casualty.

The incidence of PTSD is also, apparently, significantly lower than that found in US troops in a 2004 survey by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which found 16-17% of troops serving in Iraq to be suffering from depression and PTSD symptoms.
Why the difference between the UK and US survey results? Simon Wessely, one of the authors of the IoP report, suggested on the Radio 4 show All In The Mind, that one factor might be the longer length of US tour – US soldiers serve 12-15 month tours, while British soldiers serve six month tours. The US also use more reserve soldiers, who are more vulnerable to mental illness and trauma. And, he suggested, the US health service may simply be less good at helping veterans cope than the NHS.
It’s also worth mentioning that fighting in Iraq was far, far more severe in 2004 for US troops than it was in 2009 for UK troops.
One interesting thing that Wessely mentioned is that “nine out of ten times” the problems for which soldiers seek support from counsellors and chaplains are domestic problems. He says:

Today, with email and satellite phones, it’s much easier to communicate with loved ones back home. But you can have too much of a good thing. I’ve listened to many soldiers talking to their families, and problems are often presented to husbands, like ‘little Johnny’s refusing to go to school’, which he is powerless to do anything about. That is not good for people.

I have heard the same thing from Major Thomas Jarrett, a resilience counsellor in the US Army – who tells me that a lot of soldiers’ emotional problems on tour come from anxieties about their home life, and a sense of powerlessness to intervene there.
Jarrett tries to teach people the Stoic idea of knowing what you can control and what you can’t, and learning to accept (for the time being) that there are some things over which one’s control is limited. It’s the basic therapeutic technique you meet in the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.It’s also a technique which Stephen Covey teaches in chapter one of his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, in which he talks about recognizing what elements are in your ‘circle of influence’ (where you can genuinely influence how they turn out) and what elements are in your ‘circle of concern’ (you might worry about them, but there’s not much you can do about them right now).
Covey writes:

Instead of reacting to or worrying about conditions over which they have little or no control, proactive people focus their time and energy on things they can control. Gaining an awareness of the areas in which we expend our energies in is a giant step in becoming proactive.

Or, as the US Army’s Ultimate Leadership Manual puts it: “It is critical for leaders to remain calm under pressure and to expend energy on things they can positively influence and not worry about things they cannot affect.”


  • CONSVLTVS says:

    Another data point: the divorce rate among American service members has gone through the ceiling. Conventional wisdom–which I think is right in this case–blames the long and repeated deployments. Very little in American society prepares wives for a lifestyle in which the husband is gone for 18 months out of every 36.

    I do not know how effective Stoic techniques can be for most people, but I am always interested to see insights of Stoic moral training re-stated in other therapeutic programs. I did not know about Covey's model, for instance, but it is clearly Epictetan.

  • Anonymous says:

    I think this article ignores the elephant in the room, which is that when you send people across to the other side of the world to take part in aggressive, militaristic actions that result in death and destruction to others and themselves, no matter whatever domestic problems are going on back home, the source of a trauma is the inhumanity these soldiers are part of.

    A soldier trained to kill others is not going to be traumatised by his kid not going to school or his wife nagging to him about something- although i am sure these dont help the situation- the REALITY here is that these people are put into traumatic, life threatening situations which the mind cannot take for too long. The PTSD is the biological and natural reaction to this inhumanity.. simple. Why is it presented as something so much more complicated- again a simple answer: the modern military is a force of contract killers who are paid to the dirty work of the state, which pretends to be doing this work for dubious reasons including "spreading of democracy", "national defence" and the very dubious term- "National interest".

    The fact that most of these people are from backgrounds where the spoils of war- the profits, opportunities to rebuild destroyed nations- does not trickle down to them is the thing that is hidden the most behind the regimented, disciplinarian culture of the military.

  • Vance Jennison says:

    Posttraumatic stress disorder is classified as an anxiety disorder; the characteristic symptoms are not present before exposure to the violently traumatic event. Typically the individual with PTSD persistently avoids all thoughts, emotions and discussion of the stressor event and may experience amnesia for it. However, the event is commonly relived by the individual through intrusive, recurrent recollections, flashbacks and nightmares..–:

    Up to date article content on our own online site

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