updated 1/29/2007 7:08:21 PM ET 2007-01-30T00:08:21

U.S. troops who have been reluctant to seek help for mental health problems may soon be able to find it with a phone call.

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A new automated phone-in assessment program is the latest effort by the military to reach out to soldiers and family members who might not otherwise seek help for post-traumatic stress or other psychological issues.

The program is similar to an anonymous mental health screening effort begun online last year. About 40,000 troops or their family members — roughly 7 percent of them in Iraq — have participated.

There’s much concern among those in the military that seeking help will affect someone’s career, so it’s good to have more anonymous options, said Dr. Jay Weiss, a former Air Force psychiatrist in private practice in Louisiana who has treated Iraq veterans.

While seeking help via telephone and Internet is not ideal, it’s “certainly better than nothing,” he said.

The new efforts are extensions of counseling programs the military has implemented in recent years. Defense officials are hoping that the phone screening will attract National Guard and Reserve troops and families who are far from a military base and may not have easy access to in-person counseling or to the Internet.

The phone-in program was introduced Monday at the Military Health System annual conference in Washington. It is expected to begin taking calls by Feb. 12. The calls will be conducted in English and Spanish and will operate 24 hours a day.

“People respond in different ways. Some people will go to the Internet. Some will talk on the phone. Some people, they need someone ... who is in the same situation, the chaplain. Some people respond to religion, some will not,” said Lt. Col. Bruce Farrell, full-time support chaplain for the Pennsylvania National Guard.

17 percent suffer PTSD
Participants in telephone screening are transferred to a counselor if they indicate they might be suicidal or if they wish to speak to a live person. Callers are given an immediate result from their assessment and phone numbers for treatment or educational resources.

The military already has phone-in counseling resources available, but the new program is the military’s first to have automated interactive mental health screening.

Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley testified recently on Capitol Hill that an estimated 17 percent of troops return from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety or depression. Symptoms of PTSD include hypervigilance, irritability and nightmares.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, 96 troops have committed suicide in Iraq, according to the Department of Defense. Another 15 committed suicide in Afghanistan.

Those who have participated in the assessments online in the last year have primarily filled out questionnaires on depression and alcohol abuse, said Col. Joyce Adkins, program director for the Defense Department’s combat and operational stress control program. Those who participate online can print out their assessment and take it with them to see a counselor.

Although troops who have not deployed are encouraged to participate, about 60 percent who have participated in the online program have indicated they or a family member has been deployed to combat.

Like the Internet program, the phone-in system is focused on educating people about issues such as depression, alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, Adkins said. She said the programs aim to get the word out that problems like post-traumatic stress disorder are “not a life sentence.”

“PTSD and other mental health concerns are treatable,” Adkins said. “You can get treatment and recover fully.”

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