EDMONTON – A new study, led by a University of Alberta researcher, could help with the early diagnosis of operational stress injuries (OSI), including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in soldiers.
“I think we started, through this research, to understand how those mental health impairments start to develop,” said U of A researcher Dr. Ibolja Cernak.
Cernak — along with a team of researchers — recently returned to Edmonton, after spending a month in Kabul, Afghanistan. Part of the team’s research included studying the early signs of stress in soldiers.
“There are subtle signs with mental health impairments. Very often, those subtle signs are, more often than not, completely ignored. Very often actually, even the soldier suppresses it,” Cernak explained. “As soon as we see those signs, or we would see those signs, we would need to jump in.”
The first-of-its-kind research monitored more than 100 soldiers who were deployed in Afghanistan, and was able to find early indicators of stress in soldiers’ saliva and urine samples. Cernak says the scientific evidence helps soldiers better accept and understand mental health, adding many of them don’t like opening up about the topic.
“It is deeply inside soldiers, embedded. So it’s some kind of internal stigma, ‘I cannot be and I cannot show weakness, because who knows how it would affect my career,'” Cernak said.
Jose Areekadan, who served in Afghanistan, was part of the research team.
“I felt strongly about it and I felt like it was something I’d really like to be a part of.”
He says while everyone deals with stress differently, Cernak’s research is very promising.
“This is something the military does not do and it’s a different approach,” Areekadan said. “It looks promising in that, she’s been able to make some early diagnosis.
“Anything that can help, has got to be good. If there’s a way to prevent the harmful effects early on and not be reactant to it, that’s got to be worthwhile.”
The Canadian Forces is watching the research closely and says it could help with diagnosis and treatment.
“It’s hugely important because many of our members suffer from PTSD and operational stress injuries,” said Tammy Wheeler with the Royal Canadian Legion. “As people start to transition out and we’re seeing more people returning, we’re going to see an influx of people that are going to need help.”
The research team followed the group of soldiers for one year and will continue to do testing for another four years. Cernak says the study has been well-received by all involved, and all of the soldiers who took part in the first year will be continuing with the study.
“They appreciated very much that finally they learned… who they are. So, to learn more about themselves, to get closer to understand themselves and also to work on themselves to become better soldiers and better people.”
With files from Fletcher Kent, Global News.