Iraq: 60 soldiers a month suffer mental illness

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The number of soldiers diagnosed with psychiatric problems brought on by the stress of service in Iraq has dramatically escalated since the beginning of the war, according to new figures from the Ministry of Defence.

In 2005, the military authorities were notified of 727 cases of troops with psychiatric disorders brought on by their period in Iraq - an average of 60 each month, or two every day.

The figure is nearly 10 per cent of the total British military presence in Iraq. It includes 66 troops who developed such serious mental problems that they had to be airlifted out for treatment back home.

It is also a sharp increase on official statistics released four months ago, which revealed that 1,333 servicemen had needed treatment in the first two and a half years after the outbreak of the Iraq war, an average of around 40 a month.

These can be added to the total of at least 6,700 British casualties in Iraq, including 113 killed and 4,000 who injured or ill enough to need to be flown out for treatment.

Tom Watson, the Armed Services minister, revealed in the Commons last night in a written answer to the Tory MP Philip Dunne that the Defence Analytical Services Agency had been notified of 727 personnel in 2005 alone who had been examined for suspected mental health problems and were "subsequently identified as having a psychiatric disorder related to their service in Iraq".

Some of those may have been suffering from traumas experienced early on in the conflict, which would have gone undetected for two years. Mr Watson conceded that there could be many more with mental problems that were at least partly caused by what they have endured in Iraq.

He added: "It can also be difficult to determine the underlying causes of some mental health problems, some of which could be caused by a combination of other events that occurred before or after service."

Mr Dunne said: "This figure has enormous ramifications for the ability of the armed forces to keep up to strength and to maintain the morale of their troops. The people I feel particularly sorry for are members of the Territorial Army, who are plucked out of ordinary life and sent into Iraq, where they perform an invaluable service, and are then expected to fit back into ordinary life."

Last month, Mr Watson said that members of the TA who had served in Iraq would be entitled to "enhanced" mental health care.

At least 70 ex-servicemen with mental health problems caused by the Iraq war are now being cared for by the charity Combat Stress, which receives £2.8m a year from the MoD. They expect that figure to rise sharply over the years, because there can be a delay of 10 or 15 years before the time when a soldier leaves the Army and when he seeks help for mental problems.

The Iraq veterans they are now treating are mostly in their twenties. Some have post-traumatic stress disorder. Others suffer from depression, high levels of anxiety, or from the effect of trying to solve their own problems using drink or drugs. The number of cases referred to the charity by GPs and others jumped by 26 per cent last year and another sharp rise is expected this year.

"The figures are probably the bow wave of what we are likely to see in future, but we as a charity are hoping to be around when they make their way to our door," Combat Stress's spokesman Robert Marsh said.

The MoD maintains 15 mental health teams in the UK and has specialised defence units in six big NHS hospitals, to replace the military hospitals closed down after Labour came to power. The MoD has also spent millions having troops treated in private clinics.