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FRIDAY, June 13, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- About 3.5 percent of U.S. military personnel were in treatment for mental health conditions in 2012 -- up from just 1 percent in 2000, a new military study finds.
Experts said the rise is likely due to two factors: an actual increase in mental health disorders since Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; as well as the military's efforts to get more soldiers into treatment.
"That second factor is the positive part of this," said Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, a psychiatrist and president of the New York-based Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, which studies post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among service members.
"The military has become more sensitive to the needs of personnel and their families," said Borenstein, who was not involved in the research. "It's been making an effort to ensure that people who need treatment receive treatment."
That said, there may still be many service members who are not getting treatment, according to Borenstein.
Past studies have suggested that PTSD, depression and other mental health conditions are much more common in the military than the treatment rates would imply. One found that psychiatric diagnoses among active-duty troops rose from just over 5 percent in 2003, to 9 percent in 2011.
And various studies have shown that anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent of service members have a mental health disorder or "psychological problem" like general anxiety or depression-like symptoms.
"There are people who are still not stepping forward to get help," Borenstein said.
It's true that some service members do not seek treatment, agreed Capt. Kevin Russell, director of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, which conducted the new study.
According to Russell, the military has tried to "diminish the stigma associated with receiving mental health care."
But, Borenstein said, the stigma still exists -- "not only in the military, but in society in general," he noted. So that could be one reason that the treatment rates in this study are lower than rates of mental health conditions in past research, Borenstein said.
The findings, reported in a recent issue of the Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, are based on medical records from active-duty U.S. service members for the years 2000 to 2012.
The study found that at any given point in 2012, about one in 29 troops were in treatment for a mental health disorder -- which was 2.5 times the rate in 2000.
A majority of those service members (58 percent) received just one treatment "course." But by 2012, more troops were receiving longer courses of treatment: The percentage of service members who went through "intensive treatment" -- more than 30 visits -- shot up nearly six-fold between 2000 and 2012.
The implication, Russell said, is that today's service members are receiving more care for their mental health issues. But, he added, it's impossible to know, from medical records, whether troops were getting the appropriate amount of care.
Concern about U.S. service members' mental health has grown in recent years, due to a rising suicide rate. Since 2009, the annual suicide rate has hovered around 18 per 100,000 active-duty troops -- versus 10 to 11 per 100,000 in 2005, according to government research.
A 2013 study found that those suicides seem to be unrelated to combat experience overseas. Instead, service members with depression or drinking problems -- whether they'd been deployed overseas or not -- were at increased suicide risk.
According to Borenstein, active-duty troops and veterans need to keep hearing the message that treatment -- whether talk therapy or medication -- is available.
"If you're experiencing symptoms of depression or PTSD, seek help," Borenstein said. "Asking for help is a sign of strength."
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SOURCES: Kevin Russell, Capt., director, Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, Silver Spring, Md.; Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D., president, Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, New York City; May 2014 Medical Surveillance Monthly Report