Psychologists have blamed a surge in random acts of violence among US soldiers on the heavy use of prescribed medicines by the American military.
By Amy Willis, Los Angeles
11:38AM BST 09 Apr 2012
More than 110,000 Army personnel were given antidepressants, narcotics, sedatives, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety drugs while on duty last year, according to new figures by the US Army Surgeon General.
The figures indicate an eightfold increase in martial drug use since 2005, with nearly 8 per cent of servicemen and women on sedatives and 6 per cent on antidepressants.
“We have never medicated our troops to the extent we are doing now … And I don’t believe the current increase in suicides and homicides in the military is a coincidence,” Bart Billings, a former military psychologist and combat stress expert, told the Los Angeles Times.
In one case, an Air Force pilot who had taken a tablet of Dexedrine, a prescribed amphetamine, every four hours during a 19-hour flight, started hitting his friend in the head and accusing him of kidnap just a couple of hours after landing. The father-of-one, who also stole a car to “look for terrorists”, was charged but later found not guilty in a military court due to “delirium” bought on by alcohol, sleep-deprivation and the 40 milligrams of military-issued Dexedrine.
Another soldier, who was hearing voices, told doctors he was feeling suicidal, fearing he would be thrown out of the Army if he revealed his true condition. He was prescribed the antidepressant Zoloft and trazodone, but his illness worsened and eventually he randomly shot a Taliban prisoner in the head.
In the recent case of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, accused of massacring 17 Afghan civilians, his lawyers are currently probing whether a cocktail of prescribed drugs may have triggered a psychotic episode.
However, Col Carol Labadie, the US pharmacy chief, said the increase in military prescriptions was comparable to the world standard.
“It’s not that we’re using them any more frequently or any differently” Col Labadie said. “As with any medication, you have to look at weighing the risk versus the benefits of somebody going on a medication.”
Drug use, especially stimulants, was banned in the US military 10 or 12 years ago but since the Iraq war many troop deployments are only approved if medications are prescribed.
Regulating the use of psychiatrics in the battlefield is difficult, doctors say, because it is impossible to give soldiers the appropriate checks.
Soldiers can be deployed for several months at a time, meaning doctors often have to trust their patients to self-regulate their intake.
Service personnel can be given 180-days worth of pills to take to combat zones, with nothing to stop them trading medicines or grabbing handfuls of pills to dull a stressful day in the battlefield.
Grace Jackson, a former Navy staff psychologist, argues that there should be more controls on soldiers with mental health problems rather than less.
“The big difference is these are people who have access to loaded weapons, or have responsibility for protecting other individuals who are in harm’s way,” she said.
Ms Jackson resigned her position in the military in 2002 due to her concerns over pills being handed out unchecked to soldiers.