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About 14 per cent of Afghanistan veterans have mental disorder: study

Cpl. Chris Dupee, and his wife Angel Nov 7, 2012. Dupee has been struggling with PTSD since he returned from Afghanistan in 2008.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

A link has been found between Canadian Forces personnel who served in the Afghanistan mission and the likelihood of developing mental disorders.

A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that 13.5 per cent of those soldiers who served between 2001 and 2008 have a mental disorder directly related to their deployment.

The most common illness was post-traumatic stress disorder, found in 8 per cent of the personnel, followed by depression in 6.3 per cent.

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"It provided us with a good estimate of what we have seen so far in terms of diagnosed combat-related mental injuries, as well as what we may expect over the coming five to 10 years," Major Paul Sedge, a Canadian Forces psychiatrist, said.

"It has also not surprisingly reinforced the understanding that the greatest predictor for combat-related mental health injuries such as PTSD is the strength and intensity of the exposure. So the greater the combat exposure, the more likely someone will develop PTSD," Sedge said.

More than 40,000 Canadian Forces personnel have been deployed in support of the Afghanistan mission since 2001.

The study's researchers, Davis Boulos and Mark A. Zamorski, with the Canadian Forces Health Services in Ottawa, which provides medical and dental care for members of the Canadian military, wrote that they wanted to "deepen the understanding of the impact of the Afghanistan mission on Canadian Forces personnel."

The study included 30,513 people who were deployed outside of North America or Europe between Oct. 1 2001 and Dec. 31, 2008, and consisted mainly of men under the age of 40 in the Regular Forces.

The study found that a number of factors contributed to the likelihood of developing mental disorders, including deployment location, age, rank, element (land, air, sea) and number of previous Afghanistan-related deployments.

Those deployed in more dangerous areas in Afghanistan were more likely to develop a mental disorder.

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"Deployment to Kandahar was associated with a particularly increased risk: it was almost six times the risk associated with deployment to the United Arab Emirates or Arabian Gulf and two times the risk associated with deployment to multiple locations or Kabul," the study's authors write.

The study says an important next step is determining long-term outcomes to these findings.

"When we put soldiers in harms way, we can expect a certain number of mental health casualties, just as we can predict the number of physical casualties based on the nature of the deployment," Sedge said.

A study from McMaster University in 2008 showed that the prevalence rate of lifetime PTSD in all Canadians was around 9.2 per cent, and that traumatic exposure to one event that would be enough to cause PTSD was reported by 76.1 per cent of study participants.

PTSD has previously been linked to soldiers, who are forced to deal with very real, serious issues that can have lasting and devastating effects.

Private Frederic Couture of CFB Valcartier stepped on a land mine in 2006 which resulted in one of his legs being amputated below the knee. Nearly a year later, he killed himself in his Quebec home.

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Sedge said the Canadian Force's approach to helping returning soldiers is to do a post-deployment screening three to six months after the soldier has returned, where questionnaires are examined for any sign of a mental health disorder. If there are any red flags, doctors are notified immediately.

The Canadian Forces are also trying hard to incorporate education into training, where soldiers are taught how to respond to stress during combat, how to look for mental health injuries, etc.

Not all mental health injuries are obvious right after a Canadian Forces member comes back to Canada, so Sedge said even though the combat element of operations in Afghanistan has ended, they expect to see soldiers presenting mental health injuries over the next five to 10 years.

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