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Neuroscience & Mental Health

HOW HAVE WE PROTECTED THE MENTAL HEALTH OF SOLDIERS?

By using our research to stop long tours of duty overseas.

Neuroscience and mental healthToo much time in a combat zone abroad can cause mental health issues for servicemen and women, but when does a deployment become too long? 

The UK Chief of Defence Staff established a committee in 2011 to consider lengthening overseas deployments for servicemen and women from six months to nine. King’s Centre for Military Health Research (KCMHR) was uniquely qualified to provide something nobody else could: statistical data showing it was a bad idea.

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, incoming President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, co-director of the centre and Vice Dean for Academic Psychiatry the College’s Institute of Psychiatry says: ‘We gave evidence to the committee, as our work was the only source of UK data on the impact of tour length on mental health.’ 

The Centre demonstrated that there was an increase in mental health problems when the military’s ‘Harmony Guidelines' – which recommend maximum length of deployments – were not followed. The guidelines, which differ for each of the armed services, are designed to safeguard against excessively-long deployments.

For the army, the guidelines say a tour of duty should last for six months, followed by a 24-month break. A unit should not be deployed for more than 12 months within a three-year period. 

Our research shows that when servicemen and women are deployed for more than a total of 13 months within three years, they are more likely to report mental health issues as well as symptoms of physical ill health.

‘The length of each tour and the “down-time” in between was more important than the actual number of deployments,’ Professor Wessely explains. ‘Our research highlighted the importance of adherence to Harmony Guidelines covering tour length.’

Our research into the guidelines was part of KCMHR’s Health and Wellbeing of UK Armed Forces Study, which has been running since 2003. Funded by the UK’s Ministry of Defence, this flagship study is an ongoing investigation into the physical and psychological health of armed forces personnel. More than 16,000 service men and women have taken part in the study, including those who have since left the forces.

Through its research, KCMHR has been able to give the government concrete evidence to support the wellbeing of people in the armed forces. Please support our world-leading work in mental health research for people in all walks of life by donating today.

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