According to an Army estimate, some 20,000 or more troops in the Middle East — nearly 30 percent of the total — are taking prescription antidepressants and sleeping pills to help them “cope” with the stresses of battle. A major side effect of antidepressants — increased risk of suicide — may be why twice as many soldiers are committing suicide now than before the war. And for those who survive both the war and the drugs’ side effects, drug detox may need to be the first stop when they get home.
The FDA has had official warnings placed on antidepressant labels about the increased risk of suicide among children, adolescents, and even young adults ages 18 to 24 — the age group that forms the bulk of our Middle East fighting forces, and those most likely to be prescribed the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and Zoloft. Such antidepressant drugs frequently lead to dependence and the need for drug detox to get off them safely.
A recent Time magazine article suggests there may be a link between the increased use of antidepressants and rising troop suicides in Afghanistan and Iraq. By the end of 2007, Army suicides had reached 164, double the rate in 2001. The article says at least 115 soldiers killed themselves last year, including 36 in Iraq and Afghanistan — the highest suicide rate since it started keeping records in 1980. And nearly 40% of Army suicide victims in 2006 and 2007 were prescribed psychotropic drugs.
One Iraq veteran told Time that “you continue to get drugs constantly.” He said the medications combined with battle stress creates “unfit soldiers . . . there were more than a few convoys going out in a total daze.”
Antidepressants have created almost as many problems as they purportedly solve, and not all scientists agree with their use. For example, a British study confirmed that the new-generation SSRIs offer no clinically significant improvements, finding that they’re barely more effective than no drugs at all. Academics in Britain as well as the US are questioning whether patients with mild and moderate depression — which would include most troubled soldiers — should be prescribed such drugs at all.
Not only do antidepressants lead to dependence and the need for drug detox, they are noted for severe and dangerous side effects – they have been implicated in hundreds of suicides and violent episodes of various kinds. This has led a growing number of antidepressant users to seek medical drug detox to come off the drugs, and look for safer forms of therapy.
Meanwhile, some 20,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are on prescription medications for stress, the Time article reports. The Army estimates that authorized drug use splits roughly fifty-fifty between troops taking antidepressants and those taking prescription sleeping pills like Ambien.
But even medical professionals have their doubts about the practice. Dr. Frank Ochberg of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies asks, “Are we trying to bandage up what is essentially an insufficient fighting force?” And Dr. Joseph Glenmullen at Harvard Medical School perceives a link between army suicides and antidepressant drug use. “The high percentage of U.S. soldiers attempting suicide after taking SSRIs should raise serious concerns,” he said.
For soldiers in the Middle East, an antidepressant may feel at first like a welcome relief. But just like a shot from a hidden sniper, the lethal damage from antidepressants can come at you when you least expect it, and with potentially equal results — sudden violence, rage, or suicide. But unlike sniper fire, there’s an up-side: as long as you’re still alive, a medical drug detox program can help you get off the drug safely.