Monday, February 27, 2012

Mental Health, Military Style-- Guest Blogger Dr. Jesse Hellman

Today, we're talking about mental health and the military.  But first, I just learned, via Facebook, that today is International Polar Bear DayIf you have one, hug him tight.  Make sure he's been fed first.

Over on his own blog, Pete Earley, has a post up about a veteran who was about to kill himself with a homemade gun.  He called a Suicide Hotline, the police were sent and the patient was charged with possessing a homemade gun.  It's a good post, worth the read, and Earley brings up issues about mental health emergencies and the legal system that aren't limited to veterans. 

Yesterday, the New York Times had an article about military discharges for a diagnosis of "personality disorder."  The diagnosis is presumed to be a pre-existing one, so once a soldier is diagnosed with a personality disorder, he can be discharged without the usual military benefits.  I know that our guest blogger Dr. Jesse Hellman  has an interest in the topic.  He spent two years as a military psychiatrist, and has attended hearings on the topic, so I asked him to do a quick guest post for us:

Jesse writes:
  The article tells of a 50 year old woman psychologist who enlisted, was sent to Afghanistan, and was involved in a number of incidents, eventually being accused of sexual harassment for remarks she had made. She was sent for psychiatric evaluation and was given the diagnosis of personality order on discharge. There are severe consequences of this diagnosis, which can include loss of future benefits, medical expenses, and more. Was the diagnosis properly considered? Did her commanding officer ask that she be given that diagnosis in order to reduce the huge medical expenses produced by the military?

This is not the first time I had heard of this problem. In the fall, I attended in Washington a meeting of the House Committee for Veteran Affairs. Joshua Kors, a writer who had several pieces in The Nation which addressed this very problem, was testifying along with a soldier who had been discharged as having a personality disorder. The Department of Defense sent several people to testify that there was no abuse of the diagnosis.

One of Mr. Kors's strongest points was the sheer number of personality disorder diagnoses that were being made. It looked like these were occurring at two bases in the United States that processed discharged soldiers: Could it possibly be that this number of applicants slipped through the initial screening process?

My own impressions were mixed. It seemed inconceivable to me that any military commander would directly order physicians to misdiagnose in order to reduce costs to another entity. Vastly too great a risk to him, and to what advantage? On the other hand, the diagnosis as described in the DSM is more severe than the problem warrants: it is possible that many soldiers enlisted thinking the military was for them but then, through various routes, found that life in Afghanistan, under fire, with all the dangers and rigors, was too much. Their attitudes disintegrated. They wanted out. They were poor soldiers who disrupted morale.

To those who understand how to use bureaucracy to effect one's ends, direct orders are not needed. If it takes one hour to examine a soldier and find a given diagnosis, but alternate diagnoses require much more paperwork, repeat examinations, record reviews, etc, and the caseload of the examiner is sufficiently great, is it not predictable that the particular diagnosis that minimizes work will increase in comparison to the alternatives?

So what do you think? There are many issues here worthy of discussion.