Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

ADD meds and PTSD among our troops

By Somerset Perry

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.”

soldier 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. 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."