It began as a hunch in the newsroom of the Hartford Courant and grew to become a major exposé of shocking mental health care practices within the American armed forces -- practices that have led soldiers to be medicated without proper oversight, redeployed despite suffering post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD), and ignored when showing warning signs of suicide. "Question 7" examines how two journalists revealed these failures in the U.S. military's mental healthcare system.
When the media reported in 2005 that military recruitment standards were being lowered in order to offset recruitment shortfalls, Courant journalists Lisa Chedekel and Matt Kauffman wondered about the impact this new practice was having on the military's psychological standards. As they learned, the pre-deployment screening process is largely ineffective; soldiers are asked to complete an eight-question personal survey on which only one question, No. 7, pertains to mental health: "During the past year have you sought counseling or care for your mental health? Yes or No."
The Courant analyzed data from more than 900,000 questionnaires and discovered that only a tiny fraction of soldiers answered "yes" to Question 7. Among those who did disclose past psychological treatment, however, nearly all were ultimately deployed.
Deeper investigation revealed that the military provides scant resources -- if any -- for people seeking mental health assistance while on active duty. One soldier featured in the Courant's report tells AIR he was referred to a chaplain by a physician's assistant. The chaplain, he says, told him that "I would feel better once I got over to the desert and started killing people."
Among soldiers who were sent on second tours of duty -- a practice known as "recycling" -- many were suffering from PSTD, reported the Courant. Others were prescribed psychotropic drugs by the military but were receiving little or no oversight. Psychiatrist Arthur Blank, a former Vietnam field psychiatrist and past director of the Department of Veterans Affairs' counseling centers, was featured in the Courant's report. He tells AIR, "Patients starting an antidepressant definitely need to be monitored. These drugs affect different people very differently...people need to work with a psychiatrist over time -- frequently for a few months -- in order to find the right [drug] and the right dose."
"Question 7" also interviews Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA); and Air Force veteran Warren Henthorn, whose son, Army Specialist Jeffrey Henthorn, was one of 22 U.S. Army suicides in Iraq in 2005. According to the Courant, Henthorn's trouble signs had been ignored before he took his own life.