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Deployment of personnel to military operations: impact on mental health and social functioning

Additional Info

  • Authors: Martin Bøg, Trine Filges, Anne Marie Klint Jørgensen
  • Published date: 2018-06-01
  • Coordinating group(s): Education, Social Welfare
  • Type of document: Title, Protocol, Review, Plain language summary, Other, Data
  • See the full review: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.4073/csr.2018.6

About this systematic review

This Campbell systematic review examines the effects of deployment on mental health. The review summarizes evidence from 185 studies. All studies used observational data to quantify the effect of deployment.

What are the main results?

Deployment to military operations negatively affects the mental health functioning of deployed military personnel. For assessments taken more than 24 months since exposure, we consistently found adverse effects of deployment on all mental health domains (PTSD, depression, substance abuse/dependence, and common mental disorders), particularly on PTSD. For assessments taken less than 24 months (or a variable number of months since exposure) the evidence was less consistent and in many instances inconclusive.

Background

When military personnel are deployed to military operations abroad they face an increased risk of physical harm, and an increased risk of adverse shocks to their mental health. Research suggests that the increased risk to mental health is mainly due to the hazards of war, combat exposure: firing weapons, road side bombs, seeing fellow soldiers, friends, civilians, and enemies being injured, maimed or killed. These experiences may lead to severe mental stress. The adverse impact on mental health is the psychological cost of war, and it is of interest to policymakers to learn the magnitude of these effects. This review sets out to synthesise available evidence about the consequences of deployment for deployed military personnel in the mental health and social functioning domains.

Objectives

The objective of this review is to synthesise the consequences of deployment to military operation on the mental health and social functioning of deployed military personnel.

Search methods

We searched electronic databases, grey literature, and references from primary studies and related reviews. No language or date restrictions were applied to the searches. We searched the following electronic databases: Academic Search Elite, Cochrane Library, EMBASE, ERIC, MEDLINE, PsycINFO, Science Citation Index, Social Science Citation Index, SocINDEX, as well as the Nordic platforms: bibliotek.dk, BIBSYS, and LIBRIS. The conclusions of this review are based on the most recent searches performed. The last search was performed in April 2017.

Selection criteria

Primary studies had to meet the following inclusion criteria:

  • Participants: The participants should be military personnel.
  • Intervention: The condition should be deployment to a military operation.
  • Comparison: The relevant comparisons were either comparing a) deployed military personnel to non-deployed military personnel, b) deployed military personnel to military personnel deployed elsewhere, for example personnel deployed to non-combat operations, c) military personnel deployed to the same operation but stratified by combat exposure.
  • Outcomes: The study should report on one or more mental health outcomes, and/or social functioning for the deployed participants. In particular studies should report on one or more of the following mental health outcomes: PTSD, major depression, substance abuse or dependence (including alcohol), and common mental disorders (depression and anxiety disorders). The following social functioning outcomes were relevant: employment, and homelessness.
  • Study Designs: Both experimental and quasi-experimental designs with a comparison group were eligible for inclusion in the review.

Studies were excluded if they:

  • Reported on deployments taking place before 1989.
  • Used a within group pre-post study design.
  • Did not report on at least one of the mental health or social functioning outcomes.

 

Data collection and analysis

The total number of potentially relevant studies constituted 31,049 records. A total of 185 studies met the inclusion criteria and were critically appraised by the review authors. The final selection of 185 studies was from 13 different countries.

Forty eight of the 185 studies did not report effect estimates or provide data that would allow the calculation of an effect size and standard error. Fifty four studies were excluded because of overlapping samples. The majority of those studies were from USA but the main reason for not using studies from USA in the synthesis was lack of information to calculate an effect size. Nearly half the studies from the UK could not be used in the synthesis due to overlap of data samples. Forty three studies were judged to have a very high risk of bias (5 on the scale) and, in accordance with the protocol, we excluded these from the data synthesis on the basis that they would be more likely to mislead than inform., Thus a total of 40 studies, from five different countries, were included in the data synthesis.

Random effects models were used to pool data across the studies. We used the odds ratio. Pooled estimates were weighted with inverse variance methods, and 95% confidence intervals were calculated. The meta-analyses were carried out by time since exposure (short, medium, long, and other time since exposure) and by type of comparison (deployed versus non-deployed, all deployed but stratified by either combat operations versus non-combat operations, or stratified by combat exposure). We performed single factor subgroup analysis. The assessment of any difference between subgroups was based on 95% confidence intervals. Funnel plots were used to assess the possibility of publication bias. Sensitivity analysis was used to evaluate whether the pooled effect sizes were robust across components of methodological quality.

Main results

The findings were mixed, depending on the outcome, the time since exposure and the approach (deployed versus non-deployed termed absolute or stratified by extent of combat termed relative) used to investigate the effect. It was not possible to analyse the outcomes homelessness and employment. All studies that could be used in the data synthesis reported on the impact of deployment on mental health; PTSD, depression, substance use or common mental disorder.

For assessments taken less than 24 months since exposure the evidence was inconclusive either because too few studies reported results in the short and medium term and/or the degree of heterogeneity between studies was large.

For assessments taken at other time points (a variable number of months since exposure) the evidence was inconclusive for the relative comparisons due to either too few studies or a substantial degree of heterogeneity between studies. For the absolute comparison the analysis of common mental disorder was inconclusive, whereas the average effects of PTSD and depression were positive and statistically significant (PTSD odds ratio (OR) was 1.91 (95% confidence interval (CI): 1.28 to 2.85) and OR=1.98 (95% CI: 1.05 to 3.70) for depression). The analysis concerning substance use indicated that deployed participants did not have higher odds of screening positive for substance use compared to non-deployed participants (OR=1.15 (95% CI: 0.98 to 1.36)).

For assessments taken more than 24 months post exposure, meta-analyses indicated that the odds of screening positive for PTSD, depression, substance use and common mental disorder were higher for participants in the deployed group compared to participants in the group that were not deployed (PTSD OR=3.31 (95% CI: 2.69 to 4.07), OR=2.19 (95% CI: 1.58 to 3.03) for depression, OR=1.27 (95% CI: 1.15 to 1.39) for substance use, and OR=1.64 (95% CI: 1.38 to 1.96) for common mental disorder). Likewise, participants reporting high combat exposure had higher odds of screening positive for PTSD and depression than participants reporting lower exposure for long term assessments (PTSD OR=3.05 (95% CI: 1.94 to 4.80) and OR=1.81 (95% CI: 1.28 to 2.56) for depression). The analyses of substance use and common mental disorder were inconclusive due to too few studies.

On the basis of the prevalence of mental health problems in pre-deployed or non-deployed population based comparison samples we would therefore expect the long term prevalence of PTSD in post-deployed samples to be in the range 6.1 – 14.9%, the long term prevalence of depression to be in the range from 7.6% to 18%, the long term prevalence of substance use to be in the range from 2.4% to 17.5% and the prevalence of common mental disorder to be in the range from 10% to 23%.

Sensitivity analyses resulted in no appreciable change in effect size, suggesting that the results are robust.

It was only possible to assess the impact of two types of personnel characteristics (branch of service and duty/enlistment status) on the mental health outcomes. We found no evidence to suggest that the effect of deployment on any outcomes differ between these two types of personnel characteristics.

Authors’ conclusions

Deployment to military operations negatively affects the mental health functioning of deployed military personnel. We focused on the effect of deployment on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, substance abuse/dependence, and common mental disorders (depression and anxiety disorders). For assessments taken less than 24 months (or a variable number of months since exposure) the evidence was less consistent and in many instances inconclusive. For assessments taken more than 24 months since exposure, we consistently found adverse effects of deployment on all domains, particularly on PTSD. There is increased political awareness of the need to address post deployment mental health problems. The odds of screening positive for PTSD and depression were consistently high in the longer term. This suggests that efforts should be increased to detect and treat mental disorders, as effects may be long lasting. Mental illness is of particular concern in the military for operational reasons, but they may be hard to detect in the military setting because a military career is intimately linked with mental and physical strength.

It was not possible to examine a number of factors which we had reason to expect would impact on the magnitude of the effect. This would have been particularly relevant from a policy perspective because these are direct parameters that one could use to optimally “organize” deployment in order to minimize impacts on mental health functioning.

While additional research is needed, the current evidence strongly supports the notion that deployment negatively affects mental health functioning of deployed military personnel. The next step is to begin to examine preventive measures and policies for organizing deployment, in order to minimize the effects on mental health.

See the full review

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