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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Tragedy at Fort Hood

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The horrific events yesterday at Fort Hood leave many Americans stunned and saddened. For those closest to the events, there is both shock and trauma. Natural disasters and violent attacks have combined in recent years to make Americans very much aware of the mental and emotional repercussions of exposure to traumatic events and of the importance of providing support, and when necessary, effective treatment to people who have experienced them. The events at Fort Hood come just as NIMH is launching the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Service-members (Army STARRS), developed at the request of the U.S. Army in the summer of 2009.

Having experienced a steady increase in suicide rates in recent years, the Army sought out NIMH as a partner for this study to identify, as rapidly as possible, risk and protective factors that will help the Army develop effective strategies for mitigating suicide risk among soldiers. The Army study offers an unprecedented opportunity to study risk factors for suicide and mental illness by following an estimated 400,000 soldiers over the course of their careers. It also makes possible an assessment of a wide range of different kinds of information that could play into risk: family and educational background, health history, career experience, military training, and exposure to combat. The number of soldiers involved and the breadth of data this study is making available means that the information generated by this study will be of enormous value, not only to the military, but the civilian population as well.

Beyond Army STARRS, NIMH has a long-standing and wide-ranging program of research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and violence. While many, if not most, people exposed to trauma will temporarily experience symptoms of stress—disrupted sleep, anxiety, and irritability—most will also recover with the support of trusted and compassionate family and friends. One of the goals of NIMH research is to develop ways to identify those who may not recover on their own; information on the factors that contribute to both resilience and risk can provide a means of intervening early and preventing the consequences of the trauma from becoming lasting and overwhelming.

As many as 7 million people in the U.S. may have symptoms consistent with PTSD in any given year. While trauma is a trigger for PTSD, research is showing how the disorder has a basis in the biology of the brain and how both genes and experience contribute. Insights from research on PTSD should serve to reduce any stigma felt by people who are experiencing trauma-related reactions that impair their ability to carry on in every aspect of life. The evidence is that this disorder is both preventable and treatable.

Elsewhere on this website, those interested in learning more about PTSD and NIMH research on this disorder can go to our health topics page on PTSD. We will be adding information on Army STARRS to our website over the coming months. I encourage visitors to the website to check back for updates on ongoing research. In the meantime, our hearts go out to our colleagues in the Army who have worked tirelessly to support the mental health of those who serve us all in the military.

In the past eight years, the United States has experienced a series of manmade and natural disasters. Large numbers of people in this country have been exposed to potentially traumatic events. In this National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) video, Drs. Robert Heinssen and Farris Tuma discuss NIMH research in the areas of traumatic stress reactions and specifically mental health issues among U.S. service members. What we learn from the military experience can help us understand stress risk predictions for the entire population.

Read transcript.