'Quarter of British soldiers in Iraq suffer mental illness'

(However, British soldiers sent to Iraq managed to cope with the psychological stresses of being there far better than the American soldiers.)

16th May 2006

British Army reservists fighting in Iraq are to get better mental health services following a shock new report.

The study, by a team at King's College London, found 25 per cent of part-time soldiers deployed to Iraq suffered common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, compared with only 19 per cent of regulars.

Now the Government has said that reservists found to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or similar problems will be treated by Ministry of Defence medical services, like their full-time counterparts, instead of relying solely on the NHS.

Researchers found no evidence of "Iraq war syndrome", with no sign of the big increase in illness which followed the 1991 Gulf War.

More than 10,000 British military personnel who served in the 2003 Iraq war or were deployed on subsequent tours of duty were questioned in the study.

The researchers looked for symptoms similar to those reported in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, including PTSD, common mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, physical aches and pains, and fatigue.

Their health outcomes were compared with those of personnel who had not been to Iraq.

As well as mental health problems being more prevalent among reservists, 15 per cent reported physical symptoms compared with 12 per cent of regular soldiers.

Rates for PTSD were 6 per cent for part time and 4 per cent for regular soldiers.

Professor Mathew Hotopf, who led the research, said: "This is clearly important, because reservists are being used increasingly in Iraq."

He thought many reserve soldiers might not be getting adequate support, either at home from families and employers or in Iraq from their regular army colleagues.

There were also differences in the way health and welfare services were provided for reservists and regulars, with regular soldiers being looked after by the Ministry of Defence medical services while part timers had to rely on the NHS.

The Ministry of Defence, which funded the research, has announced that in future, part-time soldiers diagnosed with PTSD or related problems will be offered outpatient treatment by the Defence Medical Services.

The MoD said the announcement was linked to the Lancet study, which called for further research. Defence minister Tom Watson said: "My department is carefully considering the recommendation that additional follow-up research is required."

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said: "This report confirms what we have been saying, that the MoD is using reserves as a substitute army, but without adequate training to deal with the sort of enemy action they face in Iraq.

"It raises serious concerns with the levels of care being provided to our reservists who have taken part in operations in Iraq."

The study also found that British soldiers sent to Iraq coped with the psychological stress of war far better than their American brothers in arms.

PTSD affected up to 20% of US personnel returning from the war zone, compared with just 4% of British troops.

This was put down to the fact that US forces had been involved in more fighting and that British soldiers tended to be older and more experienced in warfare.

A second study by researchers at King's College found that after the Iraq war there was no sign of the big increase in symptoms which followed the Gulf War.

The team, led by Prof Simon Wessely, looked at the physical and psychological health of 3,600 British regular soldiers deployed in the 2003 Iraq war and 4,300 non-deployed colleagues.

The results were then compared with data collected after the 1991 Gulf War.

Prof Wessely said: "Is there an Iraq war syndrome? The answer is no, at least not yet."

The researchers said the better health of Iraq war veterans remained a mystery, although better health surveillance, improved communications, and changes in the way vaccinations and other medical counter-measures were used in the Iraq war may have had an influence.

Both studies were published online yesterday by The Lancet medical journal.