Feature

Battlemind"-an educational program designed to boost resilience before battle and help soldiers adjust to life back home after deployment-can help reduce the percentage of service members reporting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other signs of mental distress, reported Army psychologists at APA's Annual Convention.

The program gives soldiers an idea of what to expect before they deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan, via a one-hour class, usually taught by more senior soldiers who have served in those conflicts. For service members returning from a deployment, Battlemind describes soldiers' experiences after witnessing death, carnage, and the stress of a long separation from home, including sleeplessness, hypervigilance and a tendency to be startled by loud, unexpected noises.

The idea is to "normalize" soldiers' reactions to combat and deployment stress, explained Col. Carl Castro, PhD, of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. The training also stresses that the survival skills they relied on in Iraq or Afghanistan-such as always being on the lookout for hints of an ambush and driving aggressively-can be dangerous once a soldier returns back home and is out driving in civilian traffic.

Now standard training for all soldiers deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, Battlemind's lessons tie in with Army values by teaching soldiers to be on the lookout for signs of psychological distress from their fellow soldiers and help them seek treatment-just like they would come to the aid of a fellow soldier wounded in combat, Castro said.

Two follow-up studies of soldiers who participated in small groups of Battlemind training in 2005 and 2006 found that the soldiers reported fewer PTSD symptoms three to four months after redeploying, compared with soldiers who received the standard training in place at the time, said Maj. Jeffrey Thomas, PhD, of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Surveys also show that soldiers are absorbing the message that it's their responsibility to look out for their fellow soldiers, said Thomas, adding that the findings from the studies are being prepared for publication.

Battlemind sessions for soldiers who return from a deployment also help promote adjustment because in Army culture, soldiers don't talk about their combat experiences. To counter that reticence, researchers have found that getting soldiers together in small groups and presenting them with vignettes of what other soldiers have experienced opens them up, and gets them talking to their fellow soldiers, the Battlemind trainer and even family members about their experiences.

The Battlemind program improves on previous training where instructors presented a "laundry list" of PTSD symptoms-such as trouble sleeping-and some soldiers assumed that they had the disorder if they experienced any of them.

"I think we needlessly scared them," said Castro, pointing out that surveys conducted through the Land Combat Study of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan show that 80 percent of all returning soldiers reported problems sleeping.

A new class of Battlemind training was also developed for soldiers and their spouses. Meanwhile, Department of Veterans Affairs psychologists are looking into adapting some of the training for employers who regularly hire veterans.