Understanding Substance Abuse in the Army

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Key Takeaways

  • Substance use is a significant issue in the Army, with high rates of tobacco, alcohol, and prescription drug misuse among personnel and veterans.
  • Military personnel face unique stressors such as deployment and combat exposure, contributing to higher rates of substance use disorders compared to civilians.
  • Substance use in the military is linked to mental health challenges like PTSD, which often co-occur with substance use disorders, complicating treatment.
  • Army personnel who misuse substances may face career consequences, including disciplinary actions or separation from service.
  • The Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) provides comprehensive prevention and treatment programs to combat substance misuse and enhance combat readiness.
  • Prevention programs like ‘Too Much to Lose’ and ‘Own Your Limits’ aim to educate service members on responsible substance use.
  • ASAP’s treatment programs offer a range of services, including therapy and medication-assisted treatment, tailored to the needs of military personnel.

Substance Abuse Prevalence in Army Personnel

The prevalence of substance use among army personnel has been a concern, with various studies highlighting the magnitude of the issue. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, while there has been a decrease in smoking rates among military members from 24% in 2011 to 14% in 2015, close to 40% of those who smoke started after enlisting, signifying the necessity for targeted prevention strategies. Additionally, the 2015 report indicated that nearly 9% of military personnel were current cigar smokers, and around 13% used smokeless tobacco. Veterans, in particular, show a higher likelihood of tobacco use in nearly all age groups, with approximately 30% reporting use, which has substantial financial implications for the Veterans Health Administration.

Alcohol use is also notably prevalent, with 56.6% of veterans reporting alcohol consumption in a one-month period, and 7.5% indicating heavy use. Treatment programs report that 65% of veterans seeking help for substance use issues cite alcohol as their primary concern. Prescription drug misuse is also reported, with over 4% of active-duty service members admitting to misusing prescription drugs in the past year. These statistics underscore the importance of comprehensive substance use prevention and treatment programs within the military community.

Substance Abuse Rates: Military vs. Civilian Populations

Substance use in the military is a significant concern, with unique factors contributing to its prevalence compared to the civilian population. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) provides data indicating that while substance use rates in the military have decreased in recent years, certain substances, such as tobacco products, remain more commonly used among veterans than their civilian counterparts. For instance, veterans are more likely to use tobacco, with close to 30% reporting use, and to report heavy alcohol use, with 7.5% engaging in heavy alcohol consumption over a one-month period compared to 6.5% in the civilian population. NIDA also notes that 65% of veterans entering treatment programs report alcohol as the most frequently misused substance, nearly double the rate of the general population.

Research highlights that service members, particularly those deployed to combat, have a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder (SUD) than civilians. A 2013 study found a 44% rate of SUD diagnoses among those returning from deployment. Moreover, deployed military personnel often have lower rates of referral to SUD treatment services, attributed to high levels of stigma. 

Comparative data from RAND Corporation’s 2015 Health Related Behaviors Survey suggests that overall rates of substance misuse and overuse in the military align with those in the United States overall. However, the military population faces distinct challenges that may influence these rates. The Department of Defense drug testing results indicate that in 2014, the Army had the highest rate of positive drug tests among active duty personnel at 1.04%, with the Navy at 0.37%, the Marines at 0.60%, and the Air Force at 0.39%. RAND Corporation underscores the costs of alcohol misuse linked to various adverse outcomes in the military.

Contributing Factors to Substance Abuse Among Army Personnel

Substance use in the Army is influenced by a multitude of factors. Demographically, younger, less educated, unmarried males of lower military rank (E1-E3) are more prone to substance use. Environmental stressors specific to military life, such as deployment, combat exposure, and the challenges of reintegration into civilian life, are linked to an increased risk of substance use disorders (SUDs). The transition to medical discharge and the prescription of pain medications have also been highlighted as critical periods for potential substance misuse.

Among veterans, alcohol is the substance most frequently misused, with a significant number reporting tobacco use as well. The high prevalence of tobacco use among military personnel has considerable financial implications, with substantial costs incurred for related healthcare services. Additionally, the mental health challenges unique to veterans, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety, often co-occur with SUDs, complicating treatment and recovery.

Preventive strategies and educational campaigns by the Department of Defense (DOD) aim to mitigate substance misuse by promoting responsible drinking, discouraging illicit drug use, and encouraging responsible prescription drug use. The Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) plays a crucial role in enhancing soldiers’ combat readiness by providing guidance and support for non-clinical alcohol and other drug policy issues.

Combat Exposure and Its Influence on Substance Abuse in the Army

Combat exposure presents a significant risk for the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among army personnel, which can lead to an increased likelihood of substance use. The National Center for PTSD highlights that service members who experience life-threatening events, witness death or injury, or participate in violent engagements are at heightened risk for PTSD. This condition can drive individuals toward substance use as a coping mechanism. Research indicates that the complex pathophysiology of PTSD, often co-occurring with other mental disorders, makes diagnosis and treatment challenging.

According to the Military Health System Data Repository, approximately 2.2% of active-duty service members were diagnosed with PTSD in 2021. The condition is characterized by an inability to forget traumatic events, which can severely impact mental health and increase the risk of substance use. Data also suggest that traumatic brain injuries, often sustained in combat, are associated with psychological health issues that can lead to substance use as a form of self-medication.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that trauma and stress can alter brain structure and function, making individuals more sensitive to future stressors and potentially more susceptible to addiction. Additionally, the lack of social connectedness and the difficulty in adjusting to civilian life post-service can exacerbate PTSD symptoms and increase the likelihood of substance use. Studies have found that social isolation can have a direct negative effect on PTSD symptoms and, by extension, substance use.

Recognizing the intricate link between combat exposure, mental health, and substance use is crucial in addressing the issue within the army. Military policies and programs must focus on prevention, early diagnosis, and effective treatment strategies to mitigate the risk of substance use stemming from combat-related trauma.

Influence of Military Culture on Substance Use Disorders

Military culture, with its unique stressors and norms, plays a significant role in the prevalence and management of substance use disorders (SUDs) among service members. The culture of toughness and self-reliance within the military often exacerbates issues related to substance use. Research indicates that military personnel may be more susceptible to SUDs due to the stress of training, deployment, and the process of reintegration into civilian life. This is compounded by the historic social norms within the military that sometimes promote substance use as a coping mechanism or bonding activity.

Combat exposure and the associated mental health challenges, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, further increase the risk of SUDs among veterans. Studies have shown that veterans with PTSD are more likely to suffer from co-occurring SUDs, with alcohol being the most commonly misused substance. In addition, the transition from active duty to civilian life poses unique stressors that can lead to increased substance use.

The military has implemented various programs to mitigate these risks, including smoking cessation initiatives and policies to reduce the prescription of pain medications. However, despite these efforts, there remains a high prevalence of tobacco use and alcohol use among service members and veterans. Stigma associated with seeking help for mental health and substance use issues within the military culture continues to be a barrier to treatment. Addressing these cultural factors is crucial in developing effective prevention and treatment strategies for SUDs within military populations.

Consequences of Substance Abuse Among Army Personnel

Substance use within the army has significant and multifaceted impacts on personnel, affecting their physical health, mental well-being, and career progression. 

Physical Health Consequences of Substance Abuse in the Army

Substance use presents significant risks to physical health, with army personnel being no exception. Alcohol, a commonly misused substance, can lead to a myriad of short-term effects, such as increased stress on the body and internal organs, contributing to fatal injuries, drownings, and assaults. Long-term alcohol use can cause chronic damage to vital organs and increase the risk of death from various causes. Research indicates that substance use disorders are linked to physical health comorbidities, requiring integrated treatment approaches.

Substances like tobacco, heroin, and methamphetamine are associated with cardiovascular problems, while injection drug use carries unique dangers, such as a higher risk of overdose and transmission of infectious diseases. The impact on the respiratory system can range from infections to respiratory depression and death. Studies have found that substance use can lead to increased risks for diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and HIV, as well as exacerbate mental health issues like depression and anxiety. This is particularly concerning in the military context, where the stresses of military life and combat exposure may compound the prevalence of substance use.

It is crucial for military policies to address these health risks by providing comprehensive education, prevention, and treatment programs to mitigate the physical health consequences of substance use among army personnel.

Mental Health Consequences of Substance Abuse in Army Personnel

Substance use among army personnel is a critical concern, particularly due to its profound impact on mental health. The use of substances can exacerbate existing mental health conditions and may lead to the development of new psychiatric disorders. For instance, individuals with substance use disorders (SUDs) are at a heightened risk for depression and anxiety, which are already prevalent due to the stressful nature of military life. Research has consistently demonstrated a strong correlation between substance use and the onset of mental health issues.

Moreover, the self-medication hypothesis suggests that army personnel may use substances as a coping mechanism for managing stress, trauma, and the psychological aftermath of combat exposure. This is particularly concerning given that the military culture often emphasizes toughness and self-reliance, potentially discouraging individuals from seeking help. Substance use can thus become a maladaptive strategy to deal with mental health challenges, leading to a vicious cycle where both the substance use and the mental health symptoms worsen over time.

Alarmingly, the impact of substance use on mental health is not limited to active-duty personnel but also extends to veterans. The transition to civilian life can be fraught with difficulties, and without adequate support and treatment, substance use can persist, further impairing mental health and social functioning. It is, therefore, imperative for military policies to address not only the prevention and treatment of substance use but also its mental health ramifications, ensuring a comprehensive approach to the well-being of army personnel and veterans alike.

Career Consequences of Substance Abuse in Army Personnel

Substance use among army personnel can have significant and far-reaching impacts on their careers. The repercussions of substance use disorders (SUDs) extend beyond the individual’s health, affecting their professional life and the operational readiness of their unit. Disciplinary actions due to substance use can range from mandatory participation in treatment programs to administrative separation from military service. Research indicates that alcohol misuse, a prevalent issue in the army, is linked to a host of problems that undermine unit morale and readiness, such as increased risk of misconduct, crimes, and suicidal behaviors.

Furthermore, substance use can lead to failure in fulfilling major obligations, which may result in adverse effects on career progression. Soldiers with substance use issues may face difficulties in obtaining promotions or could be deemed unfit for certain duties, especially if their condition leads to physical or mental health complications. The Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) study found that alcohol is the most commonly misused substance, and this can affect soldiers’ readiness and their ability to serve effectively. ASAP’s findings suggest that a significant portion of soldiers returning from deployment may require referral to treatment, which can interrupt their career trajectory.

Moreover, the presence of SUDs often necessitates extended leave from duty for treatment and rehabilitation. In severe cases, service members may be administratively separated from the military, which is a career-ending outcome. The culture of the military, which sometimes includes drinking as a bonding activity, can exacerbate substance use issues, making prevention and early intervention critical for maintaining military careers. Congressional Research Service reports highlight the importance of addressing substance use proactively to prevent the derailment of service members’ careers.

Army Substance Abuse Policies and Support Programs

The Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) is a cornerstone of the US Army’s efforts to combat substance use among its personnel. ASAP’s mission is to enhance soldiers’ combat readiness and well-being by preventing substance misuse and providing comprehensive treatment options. The program is governed by AR 600-85 and encompasses a variety of objectives, procedures, and services designed to address substance use within the ranks. ASAP’s official policy document offers an in-depth look at the program’s structure and implementation.

Army Substance Abuse Prevention Programs

The US Army has implemented several prevention programs aimed at reducing substance use among its personnel. The Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) is central to these efforts, focusing on enhancing Soldiers’ combat readiness by providing guidance on non-clinical alcohol and other drug policy issues. This includes developing, establishing, administering, and evaluating prevention and education initiatives. One such initiative is the Too Much To Lose campaign, which educates service members on the risks associated with prescription drug misuse, illicit drug use, and the responsible consumption of alcohol.

Furthermore, the Defense Health Agency has launched campaigns such as Own Your Limits to encourage responsible drinking and YouCanQuit2, designed to assist service members in quitting tobacco. These campaigns are supported by educational websites, social media engagement, and stakeholder outreach programs. They are vital to the Department of Defense’s strategy to build and maintain a ready and resilient force.

ASAP also coordinates with various Army and community agencies to support units and directorates with a comprehensive approach to reducing high-risk behaviors. This includes providing assessments, referrals, crisis intervention, and suicide prevention training. The Army Substance Abuse Program’s mission underscores the importance of preventing substance use to conserve manpower and enhance combat readiness.

Army Substance Abuse Treatment Programs

The Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) is a comprehensive initiative designed to support the health and effectiveness of Army personnel by addressing substance misuse through various strategies, including treatment programs. ASAP’s mission is to enhance combat readiness by eliminating substance use among soldiers, family members, and Department of Defense civilians. Treatment programs within ASAP incorporate innovative methods such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and are continuously updated based on the latest research in addiction and recovery.

ASAP offers Substance Use Disorder Clinical Care (SUDCC), which includes a range of services from prevention and early intervention to treatment and rehabilitation. The program is structured to accommodate the unique challenges faced by military personnel, such as combat exposure and the stresses of military life. Treatment options may include individual and group therapy, medication-assisted treatment, and residential care, depending on the individual needs of the service member.

Access to these programs is facilitated through various channels, ensuring that soldiers can receive the help they need. The success rates of these programs, while not explicitly detailed in the provided research, are implied to benefit from the military’s commitment to evidence-based practices and ongoing innovation in treatment strategies. For more information on specific treatment options and how to access them, service members can visit the official ASAP website.

Individualized Addiction Treatment at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake

There are quite a few different options for people who are seeking treatment for drug & alcohol addiction. Your individualized treatment plan at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake may include:

  • Medical detox: Patients detox from substances in a clinical environment where doctors monitor health and provide medications to ease withdrawal symptoms.
  • Inpatient treatment: Patients in inpatient treatment live at our facility and attend a full schedule of individual and group therapy, counseling and peer support sessions.
  • Partial hospitalization program (PHP): PHPs provide patients with additional flexibility and independence than inpatient programs.
  • Intensive outpatient program (IOP): IOPs help patients transition to life outside of rehab, with fewer hours of care and more time building skills and habits for recovery.
  • Outpatient treatment: Outpatient care provides ongoing treatment after an inpatient stay and supports patients as they transition back into their daily lives.
  • Aftercare: Aftercare programs help support long-term recovery through clinical and medical recommendations for follow-up care, relapse prevention plans and more.

If you or someone you love is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, help is available. The Recovery Village Palmer Lake is here to support you throughout the entire recovery process. It’s time to get your life back. Call our Recovery Advocates today.

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