Symptoms of Depression and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder as Predictors of Separation from the U.S. Military

by Margaret Tankard, Andrew R. Morral, Terry L. Schell

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Research Question

  1. Are active-component service members with symptoms of depression or PTSD at increased risk of separating from the military?

Populations affected by psychological distress are at risk of adverse career outcomes. The authors use data from the 2014 RAND Military Workplace Study and administrative personnel records of 17,502 U.S. military service members from 2014 to 2016 to evaluate the relationship between self-reported symptoms of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the U.S. military and subsequent service member separation rates.

The authors find that self-reported symptoms of depression and PTSD were significantly associated with the odds of service member separation from the U.S. military. The odds that service members with symptoms suggestive of depressive disorders would separate from the military within the next 28 months were 2.62 times greater than the odds of service members with no symptoms of depression (95-percent confidence interval [CI] = 2.12, 3.22). Also, the odds that service members who reported symptoms of PTSD would separate from the military were 2.14 times greater than the odds of service members with no such symptoms (CI = 1.82, 2.51).

The study's findings suggest that depression and PTSD symptoms, including subclinical symptoms, are related to subsequent separation from the military. Addressing mental-health needs could reduce negative employment outcomes that are costly for both the military and individual service members.

Key Findings

  • Twenty-eight months after baseline, 16.5 percent of active-component members had separated from the military.
  • Symptoms suggestive of mental-health disorders more than doubled service members' odds of separating from the military over the 28-month observation period.
  • Service members with symptoms suggestive of clinical depression were more likely to separate (22.5 percent) than service members with no symptoms were (12.3 percent).
  • Service members with symptoms suggestive of clinical PTSD were also more likely to separate (23.1 percent) than service members with no symptoms were (14.2 percent).

This research was sponsored by the Psychological Health Center of Excellence (one of the Centers of Excellence within the Research and Development Directorate of the Defense Health Agency [DHA]) and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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