Some commentators see the new study by doctors from King's College London (May, 2010) on mental health in the forces as reassuring, in that it does not find an increase in the numbers suffering from PTSD (‘alcohol a problem for war veterans, study finds’ (Independent)). Others have pointed out that even if only 4% of Afghanistan returnees suffer PTSD that still means 7,000 troops will suffer (‘Tidal wave of Mental Trauma among Servicemen’ (Telegraph)).
Both these approaches miss the point: If, as the study suggests, some 13% of returnees report that they are ‘misusing’ alcohol, there will be a reason why they are doing this, and the reason, if they were not ‘misusing’ alcohol before going to Afghanistan, will be something to do with having served in the war zone.
Convention sees psychiatric disorders as separate entities, so someone might suffer from PTSD and be alcohol-dependent and the clinic, should he be lucky enough to attend one, would not necessarily connect the two.
In reality these things are intimately interconnected, as people tend to self-medicate with alcohol (or anything else they can get their hands on) in order to dull the symptoms that they suffer as a result of having been in combat.
Our experience at Resolution is that if you take a soldier who is having problems with alcohol you will almost always find post-traumatic symptoms as well – not bad enough to qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD but unpleasant enough to contribute to the drinking behaviour.
From this it seems fair to conclude that the figure for the number of PTSD cases is really not relevant to the problems that service personnel face after combat.
Proper care for returnees and later veterans requires that we ask the right questions of those who do not have a diagnosis and give those who have post-traumatic symptoms treatment that actually reduces the impact of their traumatic memories, to the point where they can get on with their lives without suffering from the anger, fear, depression and all the other symptoms that military service can produce.
The PTSD Resolution outreach programme helps veterans and TA struggling to reintegrate into a normal work & family life because of military post traumatic stress suffered as a result of service in the armed forces. http://www.ptsdresolution.org/