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Army Program Aims to Keep Soldiers Fit in Mind and Body

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator

With the drastic increase of suicides and suicide attempts, with some reports showing that as many as 18 soldiers die by suicide every day, many after their return home from the frontline, the army has taken notice and realized that their methods for handling the stresses of combat were neither efficient nor effective. In a measure to address the psychological stresses faced by soldiers the army has implemented a $125 million initiative called the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program as a preventative tool to help provide support for the many stressful and potentially devastating events that soldiers will experience.

As the wars have raged on in Afghanistan and Iraq for now more than a decade, more and more soldiers are experiencing the ill effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can develop after a terrifying event or ordeal and can manifest itself in feelings of depression, anxiety and extreme fear. Combat is a setting that is particularly conducive to producing PTSD because of its constant uncontrollable nature, filled with violence and horrifying imagery.

Soldiers, however, do not need to be physically injured to develop psychological scars. The images witnessed in battle, such as seeing a friend and fellow soldier die, are more than enough to cause devastating psychological effects.

According to a recent report it was revealed that up to 70 percent of soldiers, of approximately the 1.64 million who have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan (or both) since 2001, are exposed to traumatic incidents. Even if only 10 percent of these soldiers develop PTSD that means more than 160,000 cases. Furthermore, of soldiers that are directly injured, 47 percent have shown signs of PTSD.

If the new CSF program can help prevent even only a fraction of those cases, there will not only be a reduced number of mental illnesses, there will be more resources available to others who still develop a mental illness because the system will not be taxed as heavily.

The CSF program aims primarily to educate and train soldiers on the behavioral skills for handling these potentially traumatic experiences that they are likely to experience. The program also addresses the physical nature of a soldier's job.

The effects of PTSD mean that the struggle for many soldiers lasts much longer than the actual firefight. Upon returning home many soldiers did not have proper support to address their psychological struggles. The newly implemented CSF program will attempt to do just that, as the program intends to build supportive communities around soldiers by providing education and help to their families.

However, while the more publicized and more frequent cases of PTSD are experienced by soldiers, families of service members are also at risk for developing mental health related issues. Not knowing whether your loved one is safe and whether they will have to be redeployed are only some of the many worries faced by the families. By building a cohesive family unit, the program hopes to create a supportive and loving environment that "provides the resources needed for all members to live in a healthy and secure environment."

"We are moving beyond a "treatment-centric" approach to one that focuses on prevention and on the enhancement of the psychological strengths already present in our soldiers," wrote George W. Casey, Jr., General, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, in an article published in American Psychologist in January.

According to Gen. Casey, the goal is for soldiers to "be" better before deploying to combat so they will not have to "get" better after they return."

The CSF program seeks to reinforce "5 Dimensions of Strength." The dimensions are physical, emotional, social, family and spiritual. By implementing an array of support features, the program will provide help from multiple directions in hopes of reducing the likelihood of more serious cases of PTSD.

Although soldiers often experience similar situations, CSF is a not a "one size fits all" program. "The developmental needs of an 18-year-old private are significantly different from those of a 40-year-old colonel," said Casey.

The ability of the CSF program to adapt to each particular soldier is vital. While comparable situations are to be expected, the previous history and ability to handle these situations will vary with each soldier.

This new program will also hopefully help eliminate the stigma that is still rampant throughout the military. According to data collected from soldiers who had served in Afghanistan [PDF], almost 50 percent of those surveyed believed that they would be treated differently by unit leaders if they asked for behavioral health care. Roughly 34 percent believed that doing so would have a negative effect on their careers. And over 50 percent believed that they would be seen as weak.

Although many members of the military have a prejudice against mental illness, the implementation of a program attempting to address the problem is a step in the right direction. The increased acceptance of psychological disorders will continue to improve the effectiveness of not only this program, but the effectiveness and ability of every soldier.

If you would like to learn more about PTSD, check out NAMI's new PTSD brochure and website.