The current issue of Time has an insightful cover story about the growing number of U.S. troops taking antidepressants to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Last fall, 20,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were prescribed antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft. When one considers the experiences of veterans -- having friends killed, having to kill others, thinking that every day might be their last -- it is understandable that many would suffer from PTSD and take drugs to deal with their mental and physical trauma.
The Pentagon is actively pushing antidepressants as a solution for soldiers who suffer from PTSD. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have gone on much longer than anticipated. The military is at a breaking point yet there is a need to keep the soldiers out in "the field" for longer periods of time. It is ironic that the U.S. government spends $40 billion a year waging a drug war here at home that chases the "drug-free America" fantasy, while the Pentagon actively pushes legal drugs on the troops.
While the story focuses on the rise of prescription drug use among troops, there will surely be those who self-medicate with alcohol, marijuana and other drugs. I can't imagine what our troops are going through, and I support their use of antidepressants if it helps. But what helps is probably going to be a little different for every individual. I cannot get judgmental about people, be they soldiers, veterans or others -- even my own friends, family or coworkers -- who self-medicate with drugs, even if they are illicit. I have the same compassion for a veteran or coworker who uses marijuana to deal with stress or depression as I do for someone who seeks out a prescription for Prozac.
U.S. prisons are filled with nonviolent drug law violators, many serving mandatory sentences of 15-years-to-life for the possession of small amounts of drugs. Veterans who are incarcerated and separated from their families because of drug addictions resulting from their service in Iraq or Afghanistan will be yet more "collateral damage" of these wars.
It's easy to demand that everyone "support the troops." But if we're going to walk the talk, we had better be ready to offer compassion and treatment -- not a jail cell -- when it comes to helping our brothers and sisters heal from the horrors of war.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)