More U.S. military personnel than ever before are taking psychiatric drugs that are linked to suicides. And more of them than ever before are killing themselves.
In fact, more troops are dying by their own hand than in combat, according to an Army report issued last July, entitled “Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, Suicide Prevention.” What’s more, a full 36% of the reported suicides were by troops who had never been deployed.
In looking for causes of these suicides, the Army report considered the economy, the stress of nine years of war, family dislocations, repeated moves, repeated deployments, troops’ risk-taking personalities, waived entrance standards, and many aspects of Army culture. What it barely considered are the antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-seizure drugs, with their known links to suicide, whose increase in use exactly parallels the increase in U.S. troop suicides since 2005.
According to a 2008 investigative report in Time magazine entitled “America’s Medicated Army,” about 12% of combat troops in Iraq and 17% of those in Afghanistan were taking prescription antidepressants or sleeping pills. These psychiatric drugs carry warnings of the increased risk of suicide.
It is no surprise, then, that the Time article reported that nearly 40% of Army suicide victims in 2006 and 2007 took mind-altering psychiatric drugs — overwhelmingly, the newer class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), like Prozac and Zoloft.
“The high percentage of U.S. soldiers attempting suicide after taking SSRIs should raise serious concerns,” says Dr. Joseph Glenmullen, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
The practice of prescribing numerous drugs simultaneously, known as polypharmacy, also increases the risk of death. The Army’s own internal review of fatalities at its most closely supervised medical units, the Warrior Transition Units (WTU), concluded that the biggest risk factor to those patients may be polypharmacy.
WTUs were supposed to be restful havens, where injured soldiers could recuperate from physical and mental trauma. Thirty-two such units were created in the aftermath of the scandals about substandard care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. These transition units serve about 7,200 soldiers, with nearly 500 soldiers at the WTU at Fort Carson, just south of Colorado Springs.
Army Spec. Michael Crawford sought treatment at Fort Carson’s WTU upon his return from Iraq, where he had suffered two concussions from roadside bombs and watched members of his platoon burn to death. He was prescribed a laundry list of drugs for anxiety, nightmares, depression and headaches that made him feel listless and disoriented. Several months later, he attempted suicide. In a scathing front-page New York Times article about the WTUs in April 2010, Crawford is quoted as saying, “It is just a dark place. Being in the WTU is worse than being in Iraq.” The Times reported that at least four soldiers in Fort Carson’s WTU had committed suicide since 2007, the most of any WTU.
Undiagnosed brain injuries could also contribute to the unprecedented level of suicides. A soldier with an undiagnosed brain injury can have the mental symptoms of his injury misdiagnosed as mental illness and treated with psychiatric drugs, which are linked to suicides.
Officially, the military says about 150,000 soldiers have suffered some form of brain injury since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. But a 2008 Rand study suggests the toll is much higher, perhaps more than 400,000 troops. The most common type are mild traumatic brain injuries, or concussions. Studies show that between 5% and 15% of those suffering concussions may suffer long-term physical and mental problems.
A joint NPR and ProPublica investigation into how the military handles brain injuries focused on Fort Carson. In results published last June in an article entitled “Military Still Failing to Diagnose, Treat Brain Injuries,” as many as 40% of Fort Carson soldiers were found under more thorough examination to have mild brain injuries that were missed during the Army’s post-deployment health assessment. As a result, some received psychiatric drugs for their mental symptoms instead of proper rehabilitative therapy for their brain injuries.
The Army has launched a three-year, $17 million study into more effective suicide assessment and prevention for those who serve in the military. We strongly urge them to start with an investigation of the psychiatric drugs being prescribed to our troops.
It’s the drugs, stupid!
If you or someone you know was misdiagnosed with a mental disorder instead of a brain injury or has been harmed by psychiatric drugs, you can contact us privately by clicking here or by calling 303-789-5225. All information will be kept in the strictest confidence. We welcome your comments on this article below.