Part-time troops ‘suffering more mental illness’

Part-time British troops serving in Iraq are more likely to suffer mental and physical illnesses than their full-time colleagues, a new report finds.

The study of more than 10,200 military personnel finds soldiers deployed to Iraq have broadly the same rates of mental and physical illness as those not deployed there.

But it finds that reservists recorded more mental health illness, including twice as many cases of post traumatic stress disorder, and more physical problems than regular soldiers.

Researchers at King’s College London suggest a number of reasons for this, including the problems of being deployed with unfamiliar units and the stresses of returning to everyday life afterwards, but suggest it has “important policy decisions”.

Although reservists have access to identical medical and welfare services while deployed, this is not the case after homecoming.

However, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has today announced that reservists demobilised since January 2003 will now have access to specialised mental healthcare on their return.

Those diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, or other similar mental health problems, will now be offered treatment by the army’s medical services, defence minister Tom Watson announced.

“I am determined to ensure that our reservists have access to the very best care and support, and that is why I am delighted to be able to announce today a new post-operational healthcare programme for demobilised reservists,” he said.

“Monitoring the health and wellbeing of our servicemen in Iraq has been a major priority for the MoD and is one of the key lessons learned from the 1990-1991 Gulf war.”

But the Conservatives warned that the study showed the dangers of using increasing numbers of reservists in Iraq – a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report suggested 12,000 had been involved over the last three years.

“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,” said shadow defence secretary Liam Fox.

“It raises serious concerns with the levels of care being provided to our reservists who have taken part in operations in Iraq. The government has a duty of care to our servicemen and women, whether they are regular personnel or reservists.”

Meanwhile, another report, also published in the Lancet medical journal, finds no evidence of a Gulf war syndrome, such as that reported after the 1991 war, among those deployed to Iraq since March 2003.

“Increases in common symptoms in the 2003 Iraq war group were slight, and no pattern suggestive of a new syndrome was present,” concludes author Simon Wessely, also of King’s College London.

Mr Watson welcomed this report, saying it was “heartening” to know that the vast majority of British servicemen and women were returning from operations in Iraq in good health, but said he was also considering follow up research on the issue.