The increased use of prescription medicines, particularly those used to treat pain and stress, among active duty service members drew House and Senate committee attention in late March.
Sen. James Webb, D-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, said, "The data are stunning."
Adding, "We really do need to understand the dynamic … of what is actually happening when they are deployed."
Testifying before the subcommittee, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said, "There are a lot of dots, and we haven’t connected the dots."
He said use of anti-depressants has risen from 4,000 service members four years ago to 19,000. He added, 12 percent of the service members in Iraq used sleeping pills and 17 percent in Afghanistan.
Dr. Charles Rice, acting as the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said some of the increase could be attributed to a better tracking of the status of the person filling the prescription.
At the same time, the use of psychotropic medicines in the general populations has risen as well, he said. "It’s difficult to turn on the television without being convinced that you’re bipolar or have some other problem for which there is a drug ready-made for you."
In addition, Rice said military health care providers have been instructed to "recognize pain and treat it appropriately."
Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, Army surgeon general, said his service surveys show 3 to 6 percent of deployed soldiers are being treated for stress or mental health issues.
"Prescription drugs have been increasingly used in social settings," he said.
Army Secretary John McHugh told the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee the Army is keeping an eye on possible abuse of prescription medicines, particularly in Warrior Transition Units.
"That is … where the most profoundly wounded arrive and where the need for pain management is most keenly felt. And we have established a program whereby all prescriptions within the WTU’s go through a single point source, so that we have that opportunity to make sure that multiple prescriptions designed to do the same thing are not finding themselves into a particular patient."
Gen. George W. Casey Jr., chief of staff, added, "And, it is part of the cumulative effects of eight-and-a-half years at war. And, it’s something, it’s not a pretty thing, but it’s something that we just have to get on the table and deal with."
Both said the Army was monitoring its climbing rate of suicides and added the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program was designed to build soldiers’, family members’, and Department of the Army civilians’ resilience in coping with trying circumstances and situations.
Cardin said at the Senate hearing that Congress should again consider "requiring the implementation of an annual reporting mechanism for DoD to come before Congress and disclose the extent to which it is employing antidepressant medications to treat the wartime stress and overall mental health of our service men and women."