Is Cohesion Within Military Units Associated with Post-Deployment Behavioral and Mental Health Outcomes?

Published in: Journal of Affective Disorders, v. 198, 1 July 2016, p. 102-107

Posted on RAND.org on March 29, 2016

by Joshua Breslau, Claude Messan Setodji, Christine Anne Vaughan

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Research Question

  1. Does greater cohesion among troops in military units reduce behavioral and mental health problems after deployment?

PURPOSE: Prior studies suggest that cohesion among members of military units has a positive impact on behavioral and mental health sequelae of combat deployment. However, these studies have not distinguished variation in cohesion across units from variation inperception of cohesion across individuals within units. METHODS: A sample of U.S. Marines was assessed before and after deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan in 2010 or 2011. Within-group centering was used to distinguish unit-level from individual-level associations of cohesion with four behavioral and mental health outcomes assessed after deployment: alcohol misuse, violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), probable posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a positive screen for depression. RESULTS: Unit-level cohesion is associated positively with alcohol misuse (OR=1.86, 95% CI 1.05-3.29) and negatively with UCMJ violations (OR=0.41, 95% CI 0.20-0.83) but not with probable PTSD (OR=1.00, 95% CI 0.60-1.6) or a positive screen for depression (OR=1.00 95% CI 0.58-1.72). Lower perception of cohesion relative to the other members of the same unit is associated with higher likelihood of UCMJ violations, probable PTSD and a positive screen for depression. LIMITATIONS: Data on all members of the studied units were not available. CONCLUSIONS: Distinguishing unit-level from individual-level variation in cohesion among military unit members reveals more varied associations with behavioral and mental health outcomes of deployment than have been reported in previous studies, in which these levels have been collapsed. Associations between individual-level variation in cohesion and mental health outcomes may result from pre-existing traits related to both perception of cohesion and risk for psychiatric disorders.

Key Findings

  • High levels of unit cohesion are associated with higher likelihood of alcohol misuse and lower likelihood of military justice violations after deployment.
  • Cohesion at the unit level is not related to mental health outcomes after deployment (probable post-traumatic stress disorder and positive depression screen).
  • An individual Marine's perception of unit cohesion is associated with post-deployment mental health outcomes.

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