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Survey finds obesity, mental health are continuing problems for wounded warriors

Service members participate in a mental health awareness walk at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, May 31, 2018. The walk was hosted by the 379th Expeditionary Medical Group Mental Health Clinic to raise awareness to the many resources available for those experiencing negative mental health symptoms. (1st Lt. Katie Spencer/U.S. Air Force)

A new survey of 33,000 wounded warriors has alerted advocates and government officials to ongoing problems with veterans’ mental health and obesity.

In the latest annual survey from the Wounded Warrior Project, completed in conjunction with the research firm Westat, 78 percent of participants reported experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, up from 75 percent in 2014. In addition, 52 percent were listed as obese – an increase from 43 percent in the Wounded Warrior Project’s 2014 survey.

The survey focused on post-9/11 veterans, most of whom have injuries and other health problems related to their military service. Of the 33,000 who answered the survey, 84 percent were male, and 53 percent lived in the southern United States. The average age was 40.

The results will be used by Wounded Warrior Project to determine where to focus their resources, said retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington, the nonprofit’s CEO. At a release event Tuesday, Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs officials said they’d also use the survey results to inform their work.

“This survey is an instrument into how they’re faring and what issues they face, and it really helps us as we work with the VA and other agencies in transitioning veterans from uniform life to civilian life,” said Tony Kurta, a Pentagon official nominated for deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

Keita Franklin, the VA’s national director of suicide prevention, said at the Tuesday event that her agency is attempting to make it easier for transitioning servicemembers to receive mental health care.

She touted an executive order issued by President Donald Trump earlier this year with the intent to increase new veterans’ access to the VA. Franklin said the VA’s focus is on 18- to 34-year-old veterans, among whom the rate of suicide has increased substantially during the past two years.

“We’ve now with this new [executive order] shared across our enterprise, if you’re in the first 12 months, regardless of eligibility, just come in the door and we’ll treat you,” Franklin said. “We wanted to be barrier-free, hassle-free. When people need mental health care, it’s not the time to be giving them a pile of paperwork to fill out.”

While the Wounded Warrior Project survey found 78 percent of warriors experienced PTSD, an estimated 3.6 percent of the U.S. adult population has been diagnosed with PTSD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The Wounded Warrior Project has been conducting annual studies since 2010. Previous results prompted the nonprofit to establish a Warrior Care Network – a partnership between WWP and Emory Healthcare, Massachusetts General Hospital, Rush University Medical Center and UCLA Health to treat veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injury.

In October, Wounded Warrior Project invested $160 million into the program.

To address the obesity issue, the nonprofit started a 90-day coaching program. Based on the new survey, it hasn’t yielded enough results, Linnington said.

According to the survey results, the average body mass index for participants was 30.8, which falls into the range of obesity. Of the 52 percent classified as obese, 6.2 percent are morbidly obese. Among the rest of the U.S. population, 40 percent of adults are classified as obese.

In response to a survey question about their diets, nearly one-third of participants said they ate no fruits in their normal diet, and almost 15 percent said they didn’t eat vegetables.

“The one area that’s alarming to me personally as an Army officer of 35 years is the negative trend in terms of physical health and wellness, obesity and lack of activity,” Linnington said. “It’s a continuing concern, so we’re going to continue to invest.”


© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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