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Open Access Research article

Traumatic events, other operational stressors and physical and mental health reported by Australian Defence Force personnel following peacekeeping and war-like deployments

Michael Waller1*, Susan A Treloar1, Malcolm R Sim2, Alexander C McFarlane3, Annabel C L McGuire1, Jonathan Bleier4 and Annette J Dobson1

Author Affiliations

1 The University of Queensland, Centre for Military and Veterans Health, Mayne Medical School, University of Queensland, Herston, QLD, 4006, Australia

2 Monash Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health Department of Epidemiology & Preventive Medicine, Medical School, Monash University Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, VIC, Australia

3 Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies, The University of Adelaide, 122 Frome Street, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

4 Medical Research Council Clinical Trials Unit, London, UK

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BMC Psychiatry 2012, 12:88  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-12-88

Published: 26 July 2012

Abstract

Background

The association between stressful events on warlike deployments and subsequent mental health problems has been established. Less is known about the effects of stressful events on peacekeeping deployments.

Methods

Two cross sectional studies of the Australian Defence Force were used to contrast the prevalence of exposures reported by a group deployed on a peacekeeping operation (Bougainville, n = 1704) and those reported by a group deployed on operations which included warlike and non-warlike exposures (East Timor, n = 1333). A principal components analysis was used to identify groupings of non-traumatic exposures on deployment. Multiple regression models were used to assess the association between self-reported objective and subjective exposures, stressors on deployment and subsequent physical and mental health outcomes.

Results

The principal components analysis produced four groups of non-traumatic stressors which were consistent between the peacekeeping and more warlike deployments. These were labelled ‘separation’, ‘different culture’, ‘other people’ and ‘work frustration’. Higher levels of traumatic and non-traumatic exposures were reported by veterans of East Timor compared to Bougainville. Higher levels of subjective traumatic exposures were associated with increased rates of PTSD in East Timor veterans and more physical and psychological health symptoms in both deployed groups. In Bougainville and East Timor veterans some non-traumatic deployment stressors were also associated with worse health outcomes.

Conclusion

Strategies to best prepare, identify and treat those exposed to traumatic events and other stressors on deployment should be considered for Defence personnel deployed on both warlike and peacekeeping operations.