This new study, the first to examine the mental health of UK troops during the months following deployment, highlights the need to provide greater psychological support as they make the transition from operational deployment overseas to civilian life back home.
Neil Greenberg, Professor of Defence Mental Health at King’s College London, said: "When troops return from combat we expected to see their emotional well-being gradually improve over time. However, we were surprised to find that poor mental health actually increased in the months after coming home, which underlines the need to better support UK troops during this important transitional period as they readjust to life at home.
"The study’s results suggest that there may be opportunities to provide brief evidence-based interventions during the homecoming process. These would aim to help troops understand why their symptoms exist and to utilise cognitive techniques to help them make sense of the various experiences they had been through during deployment."
Exposure to traumatic incidents, which are commonplace in combat zones, has already been found to increase the risk of developing PTSD, depression and anxiety.
The researchers had expected to find a gradual improvement in these symptoms after the troops returned home but on the contrary found that rates of probable mental health disorders and associated functional impairment rose during a six month period after returning from duty.
The participants comprised UK military personnel from all ranks of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army and Royal Air Force who had completed an operational tour in Afghanistan. They all returned to the UK via a period of decompression, which is the first stage of gradual adaptation from deployment to the home environment. Decompression, which aims to improve psychological adjustment to life at home, lasts for between 24-36 hours and involves psychoeducation and recreational activities.
The researchers found that symptoms of PTSD, anxiety and depression increased between baseline measurements taken at decompression and follow-ups taken three and six months later. However, only PTSD symptoms increased to a statistically significant extent.
Transition difficulties were also commonly reported, with the majority of participants expressing that other people had not understood what they had been through - a belief which could exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to the study authors.
Prof Greenberg called for "further long-term studies to see if these problems persist over time" and to identify the best ways to support the mental health of troops returning from deployment.