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New study examines mental health in the military

Mental health is an important part of being human. For service members, military life can add extra stressors that put a strain on mental health. Alper Kayaalp, assistant professor in the SDSU School of Psychology, Sociology and Rural Studies, and colleagues from Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) and Louisiana State University (LSU) examined the stressful nature of the military and mental health issues that can arise from those stressors.

The idea came from Ugar Orak, the lead researcher on the project. Orak is a mental health scholar and military sociologist from MTSU. Mark Walker (LSU) and Kevin Breault (MTSU), the other researchers involved in the study, specialize in social psychology, mental health and sociology. Kayaalp specializes in people analytics, job stress and industrial and organizational psychology. Through the collaboration, Kayaalp and the rest of the research team were able to approach the project from both a psychology and sociology perspective. 

The project began in 2020 and was published August 2021. Using a dataset with a large sample of United States military service members, the research team examined the relationship between military service and depression over time. Then, they made individual-level comparisons between service members and civilians.

Using the database, the researchers tracked depression from adolescence through adulthood. From that information, they could then investigate if factors, such as life transitions, influenced variation in the trajectories of depression. 

Results from the study showed that military service was associated with lower decline in depression when compared to civilians. Kayaalp explained, “Both civilians and service members displayed a consistent reduction in depression over time, but military members showed a somewhat less decline in depression compared to civilians over time.”

“More interestingly, while previous studies have indicated that military service might directly or indirectly present a variety of stressors that may cause adverse mental health consequences,” Kayaalp continued. “Our study indicated that military service seems to attract persons who report lower levels of depression at the outset . . . and given stressful and sometimes traumatic events during the military, service in subsequent years may be associated with resilience against depression.”

LTC Jason Haufschild, department head of aerospace studies, said he is appreciative of the efforts of Kayaalp and others to study mental health in the military. “New weapons and vehicles normally capture the headlines when U.S. military capability is in the news, but commanders realize the people are our most critical assets,” explained Jason. “Mental health has a significant impact on readiness, units, friends and families. Studies like this will help improve our understanding of mental health as it relates to the military and the associated nuances so we can take better care of our people.”

The research article by Kayaalp and his colleagues is available here