The military is often described as a drinking culture. Marines, Soldiers, Airmen, and Sailors undergo some of the most arduous mental and physical stressors possible. Not all members of the armed forces deploy to active combat, but most must maintain a state of alertness at all times. Mental fatigue is inevitable under even the best combat conditions, combined with depression and alcohol, and it creates a high risk for addiction.
Here are the statistics:1
Only 8.6% of service members submit to most surveys. This lack of data means these numbers are much lower than the actual amount. However, the consistency of survey results over the years shows a dangerous trend of substance and alcohol use disorder among active-duty service members and veterans.
Far and above, alcohol is the most abused substance among active-duty service members. This popularity is in part due to the drinking culture supported by the military. Alcohol is often used as a reward for bonding, self-medication, and a hobby. Also, military drug tests are random and frequent, which prevents illicit substances’ casual use. Comparatively, alcohol is sold at multiple places on the average military base. Lastly, some branches of the armed forces perceive medical care in a non-combat environment as a sign of weakness. This destructive thinking can cause long-term depression and physical pain, which, in turn, is misguidedly treated with alcohol.
Substance use in the military was at its lowest in the late ’90s. Roughly 23% of members admitted to illegal drugs. This number spiked to approx 37% at the start of the war in Iraq. The most common non-alcoholic substance abused are pain relievers. Close to 25% of military personnel admitted to misusing pain relievers. Again, most surveys are self-reported. This selective data suggests that a much higher percentage of service members have at least borderline substance use disorder.
In 2009, 3.8 million pain relief prescriptions were written by doctors for military personnel. There’s concern about pain relievers being so commonly prescribed to military personnel returning from war, experiencing transition failures, and general injuries associated with prolonged physical activity. This issue is most prevalent in the Army, the largest military branch.
Deployment has a proven trend to foster an addiction to nicotine and alcohol. Deployment is also responsible for a higher rate of relapse in service members with a history of substance use. Mental stressors play a significant role in the rise of illegal drug use during deployments. To be clear, not all deployed military members engage in combat. Many aren’t near combat compared to their more frontline counterparts. Regardless, many combat jobs in the military result in injury, often ending in a pain relief prescription. Deployments also cause emotional strain with family members back home due to a lack of consistent communication.
Because of this and other reasons, family therapy and extended vacation is offered to returning military personnel
Active-duty servicemembers do have options for treating and preventing drug addiction. However, they also have a significant barrier standing between them and treatment.
The zero-tolerance policy first came around shortly after the end of the Vietnam war. During Vietnam, many troops engaged in illegal substances such as marijuana and opium. This connection became well known to the public leading to the department of defense imposing stricter monitoring of drugs.
The punishment for using illegal drugs or failing a military drug test is severe. A service member can lose rank, pay, vacation, receive extra duty, be sentenced to the brig, and be publicly humiliated for engaging in illicit drug use. This punishment makes seeking help for addiction less than appealing. The zero-tolerance policy prevents countless service members from seeking recovery.
Although punishment for drug use is all but a guarantee, the military does offer programs for active-duty members dealing with addiction. Many programs run through Tricare – the leading military healthcare provider. These programs can include therapy, medication, and specialized healthcare plans.
Returning veterans have a higher rate of Substance Use Disorders (SUDs), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and serious brain injuries. These co-occurring conditions complicate treatment options. 1 out of 3 veterans with SUDS have PTSD. 1 in 10 veterans have alcohol use disorder. These connected conditions can cause a cycle that leads to veteran suicides.
Returning veterans have difficulty communicating on any meaningful level with civilian counterparts. This communication barrier can make finding work outside of the military difficult, especially for veterans with more combat-oriented jobs such as infantry, explosives, etc.
Veterans, especially male veterans, commit domestic violence at a higher rate than non-veterans. This high rate is often a combination of SUD, PTSD, and a lack of access to coping tools.2
Inevitably, the inability to function in society will lead to homelessness. Additionally, veterans who have little access to mental health services or medical treatment have a higher homelessness rate.
Some veterans enter the judicial system, often due to the inability to build healthy coping mechanisms or gain control of a substance disorder.
20 to 22 veterans commit Suicide per day due to this cycle of addiction and neglect.
Trauma, any trauma, scars the brain. Combat in a war zone is practically guaranteed to cause mental and physical changes. Furthermore, combat veterans experience deeper lows of depression and higher levels of pain when compared to their non-combat vet counterparts.
PTSD leads to depression, emotional instability, and anti-social behavior. Any of these individual factors can cause addiction. Additionally, not all veterans are eligible to receive treatment. Roughly 16% of veterans are dishonorably discharged. This label permanently bars them from using military benefits. This barrier makes it even more challenging to receive mental health services.
EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a form of mental health service to lessen the effects of PTSD and other mental illnesses. EMDR is conducted by encouraging the client to speak about their trauma in brief spurts while engaging a specific sense. Most commonly, they’ll follow a light, pen, or hand movement of the therapist. A simple yet effective technique that allows the brain to forge new neural connections. In time, this creates new automatic responses and provides greater control of triggers.
Treatment for substance use can be split into the following categories.
Like that of a sober living house, residential treatment is a mix of inpatient and outpatient care. It provides stability, a sense of community, and a routine. Residential options are an excellent option for more severe cases of substance use disorder.
The military is tough. Addiction is tougher. If you’re a veteran experiencing anxiety, sleeping issues, substance use disorder, or are having difficulty connecting with people, seek help. No one does it alone. There are support groups for veterans that veterans run. There’s more to your story. The military isn’t the end of you, don’t drop your pack just yet.