Faced with rising rates of suicide and depression, the US Army plans mandatory training for the entire force designed to make soldiers emotionally "resilient."
With soldiers suffering under the strain of repeated combat tours, Army commanders have launched the unprecedented initiative to help troops better handle stress before it turns into a debilitating mental health crisis, officers said.
Starting October 1, all active-duty, reserve and National Guard soldiers will be required to take a "resiliency" test that will assess their emotional, spiritual and physical state.
The effort "seeks to educate soldiers to overcome hardships and adverse events, bounce back, and grow stronger in the process," the Army said in a summary of the "comprehensive soldier fitness program."
The soldiers' answers in the test will remain confidential and will have no influence on their careers, said Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, who is overseeing the program.
"It is not intended to be a screening tool for anything," she said.
The test results will be passed on to the soldier, who then must select a resiliency training course based on those results.
"It was developed because we recognized that we really did not have a good preventive and strengthening model for psychological health," said Cornum.
"It's just a recognition that we spend an enormous amount of energy and resources on people after they've had some negative outcome, but we're not doing anything deliberately as a preventive measure," she said.
The program comes as the Army has struggled to come to grips with suicides and other signs of duress among troops fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Our younger people are having more trouble than anybody else," said Cornum.
Military leaders have been alarmed over a steady rise in suicides for two years running. Last year 128 soldiers took their lives, up from 115 in 2007.
The number of suspected suicides in the first half of 2009 reached 88, compared to 67 for the same period last year, according to recently released figures.
The new emphasis on resiliency draws on nearly 20 years of research by Martin Seligman, head of the positive psychology center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Seligman's research with depressed patients and schools has used resiliency training to reduce levels of depression and anxiety among children between 10 and 12 years old and adults between 18-20 years old.
The training focuses on adopting positive attitudes and checking negative thoughts, but Seligman maintains the methods are based on scientific research and are more sophisticated than "grandmotherly common sense."
An initial group of 50 soldiers, mainly non-commissioned officers, have gone through the training and another group of 150 will start soon, said Cornum, an Army surgeon who was severely wounded when her helicopter was shot down in the first Gulf War and was taken prisoner.
Cornum said about 4,000 soldiers have already taken the resiliency test and the average result was a 3.7 on a five-point scale, with a higher score indicating more emotional resilience.
The origins of the program started with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who sent out a colonel last year to ask advice from Seligman about how to help troubled soldiers returning from combat.
Mullen was concerned with post-traumatic stress, alcoholism and other ailments among returning soldiers and "didn't want his legacy to be people begging on the streets of Washington," Seligman told AFP.
The professor told the colonel that there was a range of responses to trauma, that it was possible to teach people how to handle it, and that some could even emerge emotionally stronger.
"The response to combat and high adversity generally is there is an extreme end which we call post-traumatic stress disorder, and the great middle is resilience and the high end is post-traumatic growth," he said.
Seligman, who has volunteered his time for the project free of charge, helped the Army modify material used in schools to fit the military's needs.
There was concern that the course might not work in an often macho culture in which soldiers are not accustomed to talking about their emotions among their peers, he said.
But he said the soldiers who took the course so far, many of them combat veterans and drill sergeants, were uniformly enthusiastic.