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ADD meds and PTSD among our troops

Somerset Perry, Berkeley Law alumnus | April 26, 2012

Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, an increasing percentage of deployed soldiers are returning with post-traumatic stress disorder, from 0.2% in 2002 to 22% in 2008. While some of this rise is likely attributable to the redeployment of the same soldiers and increased reporting and diagnosis, an article in this week’s NYTimes Sunday Review points out another cause: ADD drugs. While PTSD diagnoses have been rising, prescriptions and spending on stimulant medications (e.g., Ritalin or Adderral) have been increasing as well: “[A]nnual spending on stimulants jumped to $39 million in 2010 from $7.5 million in 2001″ and “prescriptions written for active-duty service members increased by nearly 1,000 percent in five years, to 32,000 from 3,000.”

soldierBarring what would be a highly anomalous ADD epidemic among the troops, it appears that the military is using ADD medications to keep fatigued troops alert and awake. The medication is probably made more necessary by the redeployments required by the extended length of the wars.

How could this drug increase the likelihood of PTSD? It has to do with the human memory and the chemicals that regulate it. Stimulant drugs used to treat ADD cause a release of norepinephrine, a chemical that aids memory formation which is also released in our brains during emotional events. Since PTSD is, put simply (or reductively), the inability to forget traumatic events, those who are using stimulant medications during traumatic events could be more likely to experience PTSD. While author Richard Friedman stops short of saying that the increase in ADD drugs is definitely responsible for the increase in PTSD among the troops, the evidence suggests that this is the case. The article brought to mind three things I’ve read recently:

  • First, a NYTimes article from earlier this year about Matthew Pennington, an Iraq war veteran who has used acting to make progress in his struggle with PTSD.
  • Second, a Jonah Lehrer article in Wired this month about recent research in memory formation that discusses norepinephrine, the process of memory formation in the human brain and the possibility of a “forgetting pill” that would allow us to selectively alter our memory, potentially to help those suffering from PTSD.
  • Finally, Rachel Maddow’s new book “Drift” (or what I learned about it from Kevin Drum) and the idea that war should be hard to wage.

Maddow’s thesis can’t be stressed enough. Wars should not be easy to get into. It should be hard for a president to gather the political will to go to war and it should be hard on the country. People aside from those who are actually fighting in the war should have to sacrifice — put otherwise, we shouldn’t fight wars on the national credit card. The increasing privatization and mechanization of our military has made it so that most people in the United States are minimally affected by the wars but that shouldn’t be the case. In the end, we will always bear the cost for our wars, in our diminished international standing, our inflated national debt, and the lasting wounds of those who fought for us.

Cross-posted from Somerset Perry’s blog “Wilderness Letters.”

Comments to “ADD meds and PTSD among our troops

  1. Hey brave soldiers: My name is Soren I’m a Danish soldier with five deployments behind me now and still in the Army. I have PTSD, a head and neck injury. I tried a lot of medicine in the last 6 years. My question is: has anyone tried ritalin?

    Stay strong, Best regards,

    Soren, private 1st class, Recon.

  2. See “” in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

  3. I am a retired US Army Air Borne Ranger I have spent many
    A day behind enemy lines. I’ve had to go through many prada couplings, groups, medications, anger management and I have yet still found the relief needed because the V.A. Doctors aren’t concerned enough all they want to do is make you a zombie or a drug addict. A friend of mine has sought out medical help outside the V.A . System and he is doing great with add medication he has found a wonderful doctor who cares I have an appointment with her this week . I look forward to getting the reliefs that have been needed for the past nine years .If the V.A. System isn’t taking proper care of your needs tell your local Congress man and they will get you to see a civilian specialist free of charge. I’ll keep you posted Hugh

  4. That’s crazy to see this happening. You would think that this would get more coverage but I guess not.

  5. American soldiers are such victims of foreign occupation! And nary a word about the civilians they have either killed or traumatized. At the very least, increased PTSD and suicide rates in the US military will increase the costs of imperial wars, which is a positive outcome.

  6. America can’t send all this troops home ASAP, think about the PTSD that the wars this troops are fighting now and then think how this will translate to American streets when or if they are sent home without proper rehabs

  7. Oh dear. Even though I am accustomed to seeing stigma-creating propaganda about ADHD and the medication used to treat it, I can’t recall seeing so much misinformation and disinformation packed into one short blog post.

    Good grief! I see you’re a law student? Is this the kind of “thinking” and fact-based research they are teaching there? This is worse than any Matt Drudge wannabee site.

    Here is just one of your misperceptions (I don’t have time to address the rest):

    “Barring what would be a highly anomalous ADD epidemic among the troops, it appears that the military is using ADD medications to keep fatigued troops alert and awake.”

    OF COURSE there is a high rate of ADD among the troops, especially during the Bush years when huge bonuses were handed out to recruits who had few other options and lots of debt. Not to mention a poor sense of consequences and a high need for stimulation.

    The fact is, soldiers with untreated ADHD are MORE likely to develop PTSD. Increasingly, the military is treating ADHD, though it’s still very tricky for most who have it. Yet, you make the astounding leap that the uptick in prescriptions is for some nefarious purpose?

    Please, before you spout off about ADHD medications, please try to ground yourself in the facts instead of foolish conjecture.

    Gina Pera, author
    Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?

  8. Those are sobering and tragic statistics. I would guess that PTSD and suicide must be related, so that adequate treatment for veterans suffering from PTSD would decrease the incidence of suicide. Either way, it’s further proof of the need to address not only the physical wounds suffered by soldiers but mental wounds. I agree that we neglect our duty as citizens when we refuse to confront the reality of our wars and the effect they are having on our men and women in uniform.

  9. Over the years, our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have dropped out of the public mind. These wars are painful to think about, but to ignore them is immoral.

    This month, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reminded us of the costs. He wrote: “Here’s a window into a tragedy within the American military: For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands. An American soldier dies every day and a half, on average, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Veterans kill themselves at a rate of one every 80 minutes. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are logged every year — more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.”

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