Researcher heads to Afghanistan to study local soldiers
Prof aims to find out how troops cope with wartime stress
By: Amy Crofts
| Posted: Wednesday, Sep 25, 2013 06:00 am
A University of Alberta researcher will be embedded with members of the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan next month to study how soldiers cope with stress before, during and after deployment.
Ibolja Cernak, the Canadian military and veteran’s chair in clinical rehabilitation, will follow 120 troops from CFB Edmonton and CFB Shilo as they train and mentor the Afghan National Army soldiers in Kabul.
She hopes the research findings will help develop preventative therapies to reduce soldiers’ susceptibility to injury such as concussions and lower-back pain, (which she notes are two of the most prevalent health issues they face) as well as mental illness.
“Our goal is to intervene earlier with pre-emptive rehabilitation to help soldiers, veterans and their families retain a sense of normalcy and maintain their quality of life. We do not want to wait for problems to fully develop,” explained Cernak.
Cernak’s team collected baseline data before the troops were deployed, including urine and saliva samples to measure stress hormones and enzymes, information on memory, how long it takes soldiers to analyze situations around them, their ability to control impulses and how they process emotions.
Soldiers also provided self-reported data about their motivations and their quality of life.
Cernak said many of the soldiers in the study group have served in conflict zones before and may already have neurological trauma from exposure to explosions.
“What we already immediately see at pre-deployment are those people that have been exposed to blasts. Very often they already have some decrease in cognitive performance, memory or changed emotional processing.”
The research team will conduct the same biological and performance tests while the troops are in Afghanistan, upon their return and again over a five-year follow-up period to compare the results.
Cernak explained the stresses that troops will face overseas stem from unfamiliar lifestyle arrangements, changed nutrition, sleep deprivation and displacement from loved ones. Once they’re back home, stress is often associated with re-integrating back into society.
“Every situation, whether intense or chronic could trigger (mental) impairments,” she said, adding that symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression or anxiety could re-surface.
The use of biological parameters in the study is also unique, added Cernak, considering the expectation that soldiers are “tough.”
“The internal stigma and the picture soldiers have about themselves as tough people is unbelievably strong.”
“Very often when you take in these questionnaires of self-reported information about memory problems, sleep problems, which are the first symptoms of potential mental health impairments (they will say) everything is just fine, everything is just peachy.”
The biological measures, she said, will help legitimize their symptoms and are quantifiable, objective pieces of data.
Unlike similar research projects that have been undertaken to study resiliency in soldiers, Cernak is the first researcher to embed with the Armed Forces during deployment.
The Canadian Armed Forces has partnered with Cernak in the long-term study and hopes the project will shed light on the challenges soldiers’ face day-to-day.
“The results of the study may be used to gauge the overall well being, preparedness and stressors of the soldiers through the various phases, and offer insight into appropriate training and screening,” said Maj. James Caruana, 3rd Canadian Division Headquarters.
Cernak added that in order to fully understand the physical and psychological effects war has on soldiers, you need to see what those on the frontline see.
“I developed this program as science for soldiers’ sake, not science for science sake. It can only be done shoulder to shoulder with the military … it cannot be done only in the lab.”