Texas A&M Study Finds Mental Resilience In Deployed Combat Troops
COLLEGE STATION — Deployed soldiers in units that are facing high-risk combat situations show extraordinary tolerance for their stressful environment, found a Texas A&M University study published in the scholarly journal Psychological Assessment.
Even more remarkable, adds psychology professor Leslie Morey, is the study reveals that deployed troops have nearly identical reports of potential emotional or psychological problems when compared to their civilian counterparts back in the U.S., a finding that may point to potential adaptive mechanisms in place to sustain deployed troops that are not present once they return stateside.
Morey, who specializes in diagnosis and assessment of mental disorders, began collaborating with the U.S. Army after the Army began studying the potential development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and cognitive problems in deployed troops who had suffered from combat-related concussions. Army researchers were using the Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI), a widely used measurement created by Morey in 1991, to compare troops within the same unit who had received concussions and those who had not. In first analyzing the data, Morey was surprised to see that the responses of the control group — soldiers who had not received concussions but were selected to represent the typical effects of combat stresses — were remarkably normal. This realization led to an important additional focus for the study.
“Nobody had ever done a comprehensive study of the psychological effects of being in a combat unit, attempting to distinguish what might be PTSD versus what is the normative response in these situations,” Morey says.
Morey, along with graduate student Sara Lowmaster and an Army research team, evaluated 103 soldiers in three Iraqi cities — Baghdad, Mosul and Balad — throughout 2009 with the assistance of funding from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. They used Morey’s PAI to observe a wide range of psychological experiences and problems that the troops might have, including depression, traumatic stress, anger control, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and anxiety.
Using responses to the PAI from a national U.S. community sample collected during the standardization of the instrument, Morey was able to make comparisons between each individual soldier and his or her stateside equivalent.
“I could select a person living in the U.S. who was the same age, same gender, and had the same education to compare to a soldier deployed in Iraq,” Morey says. “Despite the fact that these troops are thousands of miles away from home, living in tents on runways, and having things blow up around them, their psychological functioning is nearly identical to someone their own age and gender who is in the United States.”
The study’s findings can be helpful for future research into the high rates of PTSD, which is almost three times higher in men and women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq than that of the general population, explains Morey.
“If these folks look so typical in combat situations and rates of PTSD are so much higher when they return, this might help us better understand what’s going on there,” the Texas A&M professor says. “Is PTSD something that emerges once you’re away from the support and immediacy of your unit and back in an environment that’s not normative for you anymore?”
This line of study, Morey says, has the potential to help understand the development of PTSD and can also explore prevention and intervention techniques for returning soldiers. He adds it may even point to the importance of the sense of community within a deployed unit, noting patterns of behavior exhibited by British troops.
“British troops appear to have much less lower PTSD rates than U.S. troops,” he says. “The British keep each returning unit intact and have them go through a sort of decompression out of the combat zone before they return to the UK. When you’re in the field and something happens to the unit, everyone experiences it. There is a sense of collective experience that becomes normalized, but then you return stateside to a group that doesn’t have those same experiences. The answer may lie in better handling that transition.”
A video of Leslie Morey discussing this research can be found at http://youtu.be/0-n5rP810YY.
About research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Texas A&M is in the vanguard in making significant contributions to the storehouse of knowledge, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represents an annual investment of more than $630 million, which ranks third nationally for universities without a medical school, and underwrites approximately 3,500 sponsored projects. That research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting in many cases in economic benefits to the state, nation and world.