Report: Army psychotropic drug use on the rise

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Over 110,000 active duty Army troops took prescription antidepressants, narcotics, sedatives, antipsychotics or anti-anxiety drugs last year, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Lawyers are blaming the military’s heavy use of prescribed psychotropic drugs for “aberrant behavior and related health problems” among the troops.

According to the Times, almost 8 percent of active duty troops take sedatives and over 6 percent are on antidepressants, increasing eightfold since 2005.

However, the pharmacy consultant for the Army surgeon general said the military’s use of the drugs is comparable to usage the civilian world.

Col. Carol Labadie said, “It’s not that we’re using them more frequently or any differently. … As with any medication, you have to look at weighing the risk versus the benefits of somebody going on a medication.”

Others think differently.

Bart Billings, a former military psychologist who hosts an annual conference on combat stress, argues, “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.”

In fact, it’s difficult to regulate prescription drug use, compared to use in the civilian world, according to some psychologists. In the battlefield it’s difficult to schedule and show up to follow-up appointments.

Soldiers are typically deployed with 180 days of medications, which they can trade among themselves. Injuries sustained while on deployment can make soldiers dependent of narcotic pain pills.

James Culp, a former Army paratrooper and now a high-profile military defense lawyer said, “What do you do when 30-80% of the people that you have in the military have gone on three or more deployments, and they are mentally worn out? What do you do when they can’t sleep? You make a calculated risk in prescribing these medications.”

One of James Culp’s clients, Army Pfc. David Lawrence, plead guilty last year to murdering an imprisoned Taliban commander in Afghanistan. He was sentenced to 12.5 years after it was proven that he suffered from schizophrenic episodes that escalated after the death of a good friend who was an Army chaplain. Lawrence’s sentence was later reduced to 10 years.

Lawrence was deeply depressed and was hearing a “female-sounding and never nice” voice, which got worse, despite the fact that he was prescribed Zoloft by Army doctors. It turns out he didn’t tell anyone about the voice he heard because he feared being dismissed from the military.

Peter Breggin, a New York psychiatrist who has written widely about psychiatric drugs and violence said, “Prior to the Iraq war, soldiers could not go into combat on psychiatric drugs, period. Not very long ago, going back maybe 10 or 12 years, you couldn’t even go into the armed services if you used any of these drugs, in particular stimulants.”

However, “they’ve changed that… I’m getting a new kind of call right now, and that’s people saying the psychiatrist won’t approve their deployment unless they take psychiatric drugs.”

According to the Times, “Military doctors say most drugs’ safety and efficacy is so well-established that it would be a mistake to send battalions into combat without the help of medications that can prevent suicides, help soldiers rest and calm shattered nerves.”

In a 2010 congressional hearing, the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association “urged the Army to stay the course on psychotropic drugs.”

M. David Rudd, the psychologists’ spokesman and dean of the college of social and behavioral science at the University of Utah, said the real danger is if soldiers are “frightened out of access to potentially life-saving medication.”

Also, the Army surgeon general’s office said nobody without specific approval is allowed deploy using psychotropic drugs until they’ve been stabilized, and that soldiers who need antipsychotic medicine will not be allowed to go into combat.

Much of the current controversy has been fueled by reports of a possible link between selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac, Praxil and Zoloft and an increased risk of suicide among young people. SSRIs are a class of antidepressants that boost serotonin levels to the brain and these drugs carry warning labels for people up to age 24, which is the age of most young military personnel.

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