NEW YORK – Concerned by rising stress levels in the ranks, the Defense Department has quietly started an online self-screening program in hopes that anonymity will help some service members and their spouses overcome reluctance to confront possible mental-health problems.
"It's an excellent tool — available 24/7 so you can do it at night when nobody's watching," said Deborah Manning, who coordinates Army substance-abuse programs at Fort Benning, Ga. "The anonymity can make a big difference to a soldier who's been trained to think, 'I'm macho. I can handle this.'"
Air Force Col. Joyce Adkins, a psychologist at the Pentagon's Health Affairs office, said several thousand people have used the Mental Health Self-Assessment Program since it went online four months ago. The program assesses answers to questions about recent behavior and mood swings. If the responses indicate possible trouble, it suggests options for seeking help.
The effort is among the latest of numerous military initiatives undertaken to cope with stress, depression and other mental-health problems that have proliferated since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan led to tougher overseas deployment schedules.
The Army, for example, has assigned combat stress teams to units in Iraq following an increase in suicides among soldiers there. Service members returning from Iraq have been required to complete a survey used to decide who might need further psychological help; a recent Pentagon study found that a third of them received counseling.
The new online program is aimed at members of all military branches, whether or not they have been in war zones, and also at their families.
"The stress has been astronomical in the last couple of years," Manning said. "And it may be more so for family members left behind — wondering, worrying, sitting there watching as CNN takes you there (Iraq) live."
Tom Angelo, a sonar technician who helps run substance abuse programs at the Navy's submarine base in Bangor, Wash., said the self-screening program provides an opportunity for a service member's spouse to seek help in a private, low-key manner.
"There's still some underlying stigma that we have to overcome — a lot of people who don't want to mess with their husband's or wife's career," he said. "This online process definitely opens up more of an opportunity."
Stress unquestionably has been increasing at his base, Angelo said.
"Ships and subs deploy more often — people are asked to do more with less," he said. "There's a lot more anxiety and depression, especially with the younger guys, the newlyweds, guys with newborn babies. Half the time you never know where you're going or when you'll be back."
The online program, developed by a nonprofit group called Screening for Mental Health, is divided into subsections addressing depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, bipolar disorder and alcohol abuse. It is free and confidential; participants are asked about deployment records and military status but not for any details that would identify them.
"It's a first step for people wondering, 'Do I need help?'" said Joyce Raezer of the National Military Family Association.
Still, while Raezer commended the military for trying to expand support programs for family members, she questioned whether resources are sufficient, noting a nationwide shortage of child psychiatrists as an example.
Stephen Robinson, legislative director for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, is more critical. He said questionnaires, whether completed online or at group screening sessions, are inadequate substitutes for individual face-to-face encounters with mental health professionals.
The online program "is well-intentioned but not well thought-out," he said. "I doubt it will produce any measurable help for soldiers."
Adkins, however, said it is impossible to provide face-to-face screening and counseling at every moment that a service member or relative might need it.
The online option, she said, "is always available. You don't have to go anywhere. You don't have to have child care or change your clothes." Even some soldiers in Iraq have used the online screening, she added.
The Pentagon is committed to the program at least through the next fiscal year and plans to introduce a Spanish version, Adkins said.
"Everybody agrees there's more stress out there," she said. "The best thing we can do is acknowledge the stress and find ways to alleviate it."