Military Uses Unproven Mental Health Programs, Report Finds

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Hundreds of veterans gather at a rally in support of PTSD awareness in Oxford, Mass. Colm O'Molloy / Boston Globe via Getty Images

Veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars, as well as other service members and their families, have high rates of depression, anxiety and other disorders, yet the U.S. military isn’t using tested screening methods to help prevent them, a team of experts said Thursday.

And despite extensive research, the panel of experts couldn’t find any proven Department of Defense programs to prevent domestic abuse. Programs to battle sexual assault — another documented problem — aren’t being assessed to see if they actually work, the Institute of Medicine panel reported.

“A fundamental finding of the committee is that, with some notable exceptions, few of DOD’s prevention interventions are theory- or evidence-based,” wrote Kenneth E. Warner, a public health expert at the University of Michigan who headed the panel.

One obvious example of an unproven and controversial approach is the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program, which includes a mandatory online training program developed with Dr. Martin Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association, the report finds.

And while there are approaches that do work — such as restricting access to firearms to discourage suicide and murder or making it harder to get alcohol — the military isn’t using them, instead relying on easy but unproven internet tools or “events."

The Institute of Medicine recommended in 2012 that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan undergo annual screening for post-traumatic stress disorder and that federal agencies conduct more research to determine how well the various treatments for PTSD are working.

There are all sorts of programs out there run by non-military groups, from art therapy to specially trained service dogs, and even hip-hop music interventions.

The military also has screening and treatment programs. The trouble is, there’s not much evidence that they work as intended, the report finds. And there’s little doubt that many military personnel are struggling, despite some denials.

“Between 2001 and 2011 the percentage of active-duty service members diagnosed with a psychological condition increased by approximately 62 percent,” the report reads. It says more than 936,000 current and former service members had been diagnosed with at least one psychological disorder during service by 2011, and nearly half of them had more than one mental disorder.

"The recommendations are clear,” the report reads — dump the unproven approaches. If military officials believe something they are doing works well, they should do the studies to prove it.

DoD spokeswoman Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson said the department had requested the review from the Institute of Medicine and was reviewing its findings.