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One-quarter of Canadian soldiers return from Afghanistan with mental-health problems

One in four Canadian soldiers returning from Afghanistan is suffering from mental problems or "high-risk drinking," according to post-deployment screening reports obtained by The Globe and Mail under access to information.

In the past decade, as Canadian Forces were called on to undertake perilous new missions, the military has struggled to understand the scope of mental-health problems among troops. The first comprehensive study of front-line soldiers based on their actual medical history is still under way, leaving questions about stress disorders to self-reporting surveys.

The latest survey, completed last June, covered more than 17,000 soldiers returning from all regions of Afghanistan since 2005. It found that while most "report good mental health," there was "an important minority" of 12 per cent who had one or more mental-health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. In addition, "harmful" or "hazardous" drinking was reported by a further 13 per cent of the troops.

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Canadian Forces Ombudsman Pierre Daigle has called PTSD and related stress illnesses "a real hardship for Canada's soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen for many years to come."

The Ombudsman is set to publish a major investigation of mental health among troops in coming months. Two previous inquiries in 2002 and 2008 questioned how effectively the military monitors and treats PTSD.

"A lot of progress has been made, but there are still some glaring problems," said Darren Gibb, spokesman for the Ombudsman.

The military conducts the post-deployment surveys on a regular basis, but Mr. Gibb says there remains a concern that some fall through the cracks, given the hidden and lingering nature of PTSD.

He said there was a need for a comprehensive database that tracks active duty soldiers not just immediately after their return from war but for months and even years after. Reservists and discharged troops also need to be monitored.

"That absolutely complete database isn't here yet, but that doesn't mean we're working in the dark," said Lieutenant-Colonel Rakesh Jetly, a psychiatrist and a senior mental health adviser for the military. "It doesn't mean we don't have a pulse on the problem."

To better determine the actual rate of PTSD – at least among front-line troops in Afghanistan – Dr. Jetly said by the end of the year the military will release a "painstaking study" based on the examination of the medical files of several thousand soldiers serving in Kandahar.

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"You've got the gold standard," he said. "You're not relying on self-reports. It will be a true reflection of people who have these illnesses attributed to the mission."

To date, estimates of mental-health problems among Canadian combat troops have varied widely. Previous post-deployment surveys indicate PTSD among soldiers returning from Afghanistan "declined significantly" from 7 per cent in 2006 to 3.3 per cent in 2009.

But the research proposal for the upcoming Kandahar study of soldier's medical files estimates that as many as 15 per cent of troops there will have what the military calls OSI or "operational stress injuries."

Dr. Jetly said the military has paid attention recently not just to gathering statistics but also to educating troops and their commanders to recognize PTSD and to remove the stigma attached to mental illnesses.

"These are my colleagues, my brothers and sisters," he said. "We have an ethical obligation to look after these people."

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