Psychotropic drugs add to the dangers of war

Soldiers being treated for mental health concerns can't be easily monitored in a war zone.

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The war in Afghanistan has cost many American lives and the death toll continues to mount. U.S. taxpayers are spending about $1 billion a month to wage war in Afghanistan.

This, unfortunately, is only the most visible toll of war.

The Los Angeles Times this week reported that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have been lingering for a decade, have strained the mental health of troops to the point where -- as the headline in the Los Angeles Times proclaims -- "Soldiers at war in fog of psychotropic drugs."

Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times reported this week that more than 110,000 active-duty Army troops last year were taking prescribed antidepressants, narcotics, sedatives, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety drugs. These statistics were disclosed to the Los Angeles Times by the U.S. Army surgeon general.

Nearly 8 percent of the active-duty Army is now on sedatives and more than 6 percent is on antidepressants -- an eightfold increase since 2005, according to the Times.

"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," said Bart Billings, a former military psychologist who hosts an annual conference in California combat stress.

Drug therapy for mental health has increased throughout society, not just in the military. That's generally been a positive as medication helps people with depression and other mental health concerns lead happier, more productive lives.

However, most of those on medication are monitored by a doctor to ensure the dosage is correct.

This is not necessarily the case for those who are now fighting in Afghanistan. They can go long periods of time without being monitored.

Soldiers are sent out on deployment typically with 180 days of medications, allowing them to trade with friends or grab a fistful of pills at the end of an anxious day, Murphy wrote for the Times.

"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," said Grace Jackson, a former Navy staff psychiatrist.

In addition, soldiers with injuries can become dependent on narcotic painkillers. The military has long had a culture of heavy drinking as a stress release.

In one case detailed by Murphy, an Air Force pilot was diagnosed by four military psychiatrists as suffering from "polysubstance-induced delirium" brought on by alcohol, lack of sleep and the 40 milligrams of dexedrine issued by the Air Force.

Troops are now doing more than one tour of duty in war zones. This, too, has compounded the problem.

The sooner all U.S. troops can get out of Afghanistan the better.

Meanwhile, military officials must address the serious problem associated with the misuse of psychotropic drugs.

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