Joining the armed forces before the age of 18 does not seem to increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, as new research shows.
Two new studies found little evidence that early entry into the service – the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force – had negative effects on long-term mental health.
Young people can join the British Armed Forces as juniors or “juniors” at the age of 16 or 17. The training focuses on education, physical fitness, and manual skills.
Use is only permitted at the age of 18.
However, concerns have been raised that juniors are more likely to be put into combat roles and therefore may be at greater risk of poorer mental health outcomes than those who join at 18 years of age or older.
Two studies by researchers from the University of Glasgow and the King’s Center for Military Health Research (KCMHR) at King’s College London found that people who joined the British Army as juniors were not at increased risk of PTSD.
However, research conducted by the University of Glasgow found that veterans who entered service between the ages of 20-25 were at increased risk for mental health problems.
The study conducted by KCMHR found that those under 18 who joined after 2003 reported a higher prevalence of alcohol abuse and self-harm.
Honorary Clinical Associate Professor and Head of the Scottish Veterans Health Research Group at the University of Glasgow and Senior Researcher, Dr. Beverly Bergman, said, “Our results do not provide any evidence to support the concerns expressed prior to junior service entering the military up to the age of 17.5, associated with an increased risk of adverse mental health outcomes.
“In contrast, entry into the service from the age of 20 is the highest risk, although the overall effect has diminished with newer generations of veterans.
“We also found that those who join the service as junior staff are more likely to pursue longer military careers and are less at risk of long-term mental illness than those who were hired in old age.
“Efforts to prevent recruitment in younger age groups to protect mental health are misplaced at best and, paradoxically, can lead to increased mental health risk at worst.”
The study, conducted by the University of Glasgow, looked at more than 78,000 veterans in Scotland born between 1945 and 1995, of whom more than 28,000 were enrolled as juniors, and looked at the long-term serious mental illness in junior entry-level veterans versus veterans who were recruited in old age.
The veterans were compared to 253,000 people who had no records of military service.
The researchers found that veterans’ risk of developing mental health problems was highest among those older than when they joined the armed forces, especially those born before 1960.
More recently born veterans were less likely to be at different risk for mental illness regardless of their age at the time of recruitment.
The study, conducted by King’s College, London, used data from the KCMHR military cohort study of British armed forces personnel.
KCMHR researchers compared the engagement, pre- and post-service experiences, and mental health outcomes among those who entered the service as juniors and completed basic training with those who entered the service as standard participants and did one Had completed basic training.
Data from 4,447 participants showed that there was no increased risk of PTSD or common mental disorders. However, those under 18 who signed up after 2003 reported higher levels of alcohol abuse and self-harm compared to those over 18 when they joined the armed forces.
King’s College London writer and co-director Professor Nicola Fear said, “Self-harm and excessive alcohol consumption are clear signs of distress and we need to investigate why these rates are increasing in the younger cohort.”
Both studies are published in the BMJ Military Health.