Substance Abuse in the US Navy

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Key Takeaways

  • Substance misuse in the US Navy has evolved due to policy changes, combat deployments, and cultural shifts, with a focus on prevention, intervention, and treatment strategies.
  • During the Vietnam War, substance misuse among Navy personnel was significant, with prevalent use of marijuana, heroin, and amphetamines.
  • Post-Vietnam, the Navy saw shifts in substance use patterns, with policy changes in the 1980s and ongoing challenges for veterans post-service.
  • Alcohol and prescription drugs are the most commonly misused substances in the Navy, with recent policy changes reflecting societal shifts and a focus on reducing attrition rates.
  • Substance misuse in the Navy leads to serious physical, psychological, and professional consequences, including health issues, mental health disorders, and career setbacks.
  • The Navy has implemented various prevention and treatment programs, such as the Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation Program (SARP) and the Navy Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention (NADAP) program.
  • Challenges in substance misuse prevention and treatment include cultural factors, deployment-related stress, and stigma, with future directions focusing on enhanced prevention and integrated treatment strategies.

History of Substance Abuse in the US Navy

The issue of substance misuse within the US Navy has evolved over the years, influenced by various factors, including policy changes, combat deployments, and cultural shifts. Historically, the Navy, like other military branches, has grappled with substance misuse among its ranks. The use of alcohol and tobacco has been prevalent, with policies enacted to curb their use and support affected service members. For instance, the Department of Defense’s strong stance against alcohol misuse and illicit drug use reflects an ongoing effort to maintain high standards of performance and discipline.

Combat deployments have also played a significant role in the prevalence of substance use disorders (SUDs) among Navy personnel. Service members deployed to conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan have exhibited higher rates of SUD diagnoses compared to their civilian counterparts. Studies indicate that the stressors of deployment and the challenges of reintegration into civilian life contribute to the risk of developing SUDs. Additionally, the co-occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and SUDs is notably higher in military populations, necessitating integrated treatment approaches for these comorbid conditions.

In response to the growing concern over prescription drug misuse, particularly opioids prescribed for pain management, the military has initiated training for providers and adjusted prescription practices. The Navy’s history with substance misuse reflects broader trends within the military and underscores the need for targeted prevention, intervention, and treatment strategies to address this complex issue.

Substance Abuse Among Navy Personnel During the Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, substance misuse was a significant issue among US Navy personnel. The war presented stressful combat situations that led many servicemen to self-medicate, seek escape, or indulge in hedonistic behaviors. Contributing factors to the high rates of substance misuse included the need for coping mechanisms in a war-torn environment, the relaxation of societal taboos against drug use in the United States, and easy access to inexpensive illicit drugs. This availability was often due to profiteering by South Vietnamese officials. Research highlights that drugs such as marijuana, heroin, and amphetamines were commonly used by service members during this period.

Studies have shown that veterans who became addicted to substances like heroin in Vietnam often had pre-existing social issues and engaged in polydrug use, including marijuana, alcohol, and amphetamines. The relationship between heroin use and the stress of war has been debated, with some research suggesting that it was not solely a response to the intolerable circumstances of the conflict. Extensive research was conducted to better understand and support veterans, including a project led by sociologist Lee N. Robins, who interviewed soldiers returning from service in September 1971.

Heroin misuse became particularly prevalent among military personnel during the Vietnam War, with many becoming dependent and continuing their use after the war. The impact of substance misuse extended beyond the individuals to affect military operations and the overall health and well-being of the personnel. The legacy of this era’s substance misuse patterns set the stage for future policies and interventions within the military to address such issues.

Shifts in Substance Abuse Patterns in the US Navy Post-Vietnam

Following the Vietnam War, the US Navy, along with other military branches, experienced a significant shift in substance misuse patterns among personnel. The post-Vietnam era saw the military transition to an All-Volunteer Force (AVF), which brought about changes in service member demographics and substance use behaviors. During the 1980s, the military increased benefits and instituted a zero-tolerance policy for illicit drugs, reflecting a broader push for substance misuse prevention and control. Research indicates that these policy changes were critical in shaping the landscape of substance use within the military.

Despite efforts to mitigate substance misuse, veterans continued to face challenges related to substance misuse long after their service. Studies have revealed that veterans often engage in significant substance use post-separation, frequently in conjunction with physical and mental health issues stemming from their military experiences, such as pain, traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, and depression. This underscores the need for a comprehensive understanding of the co-development of substance use and associated health risks over time. Data from the Pew Research Center suggests that a substantial number of modern-era veterans experience difficulties readjusting to civilian life, with some reporting symptoms of anger and depression, which may contribute to or exacerbate substance use.

Furthermore, the implementation of prevention programs and smoking cessation initiatives by the Department of Defense, such as aiming for tobacco-free installations, reflects ongoing efforts to address substance misuse issues among military personnel. However, the prevalence of substance use disorders (SUDs) and co-occurring mental health disorders remains a concern for veterans seeking care within the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) system. Studies have shown that veterans with SUDs commonly have co-occurring mental health disorders, highlighting the complexity of treatment and the necessity for integrated care approaches.

Overview of Substance Abuse in the US Navy

The US Navy, like any large organization, faces challenges related to substance misuse among its personnel. While specific data from the provided research is limited, the US Navy Health of the Force Report and the Navy Drug and Alcohol Deterrence programs indicate ongoing efforts to maintain a healthy and resilient force. The Navy’s approach to substance misuse is multifaceted, focusing on prevention, treatment, and maintaining readiness.

Recent policy changes, such as the Navy’s more forgiving stance on recruits’ prior marijuana use, reflect a shift towards a more nuanced understanding of substance misuse issues. This change, as reported by, suggests an adaptation to societal changes and a focus on reducing attrition rates during boot camp. Despite these adaptations, the Navy continues to uphold strict policies against drug use while in service, as substance misuse can have severe consequences on physical health, psychological well-being, and career progression.

The most commonly misused substances have historically included alcohol and prescription drugs, with a notable prevalence of alcohol misuse. However, the Navy’s continuous efforts to combat substance misuse through education, deterrence, and support programs aim to reduce these issues and promote a culture of resilience and health among sailors.

Examining Alcohol Abuse Prevalence Among Navy Personnel

The prevalence of alcohol misuse in the US Navy is a significant concern, with various studies indicating that Navy personnel are at an increased risk for developing alcohol use disorders (AUDs). Research has shown that service members who have been deployed, particularly in recent conflicts, are more likely to experience substance use challenges upon their return. Notably, a systematic review revealed that recently deployed service members were 1.36 times more likely to develop an AUD than their non-deployed counterparts.

Within the military culture, alcohol consumption is often seen as a normative behavior, which can exacerbate the risk of misuse. For instance, 65% of veterans entering treatment programs report alcohol as the most frequently misused substance. This figure is nearly double that of the general population, underscoring the gravity of alcohol-related issues within the Navy community.

The Department of Defense has implemented smoking cessation programs and aims for tobacco-free installations. Moreover, the co-occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and AUDs is well-documented, with studies indicating that a significant proportion of those seeking treatment for AUD also meet the criteria for PTSD. This dual diagnosis can lead to more severe mental health consequences and complicate treatment outcomes.

Efforts to address alcohol misuse include the integration of treatment for SUDs and PTSD and interdisciplinary approaches to pain management to reduce long-term opioid therapy. The military’s policies strongly discourage alcohol misuse, and there is a focus on evidence-based strategies to support service members in their recovery and reintegration into civilian life.

Understanding Drug Abuse Prevalence in the US Navy

The US Navy, like other military branches, faces unique challenges when it comes to drug misuse among its personnel. Studies indicate that military service members, including those in the Navy, have a higher risk of developing substance use disorders (SUDs) compared to the civilian population. This risk is exacerbated by factors such as deployment and combat exposure, with research showing an increased likelihood of SUD diagnoses post-deployment. The prevalence of drug misuse in the Navy is a reflection of various stressors, including the intense nature of military life and the mental health challenges associated with it.

Among the substances misused, prescription drug misuse is notable, particularly opioids. The Navy has seen a concerning trend in prescription pain medication, with a significant increase in the number of prescriptions written since the early 2000s. However, recent efforts to integrate treatment for co-occurring disorders such as PTSD and SUDs, as well as a focus on trauma-informed care, show promise in addressing these issues. The high rate of co-occurrence between PTSD and SUDs in military populations underscores the need for comprehensive treatment options that address both mental health and substance misuse.

Alcohol remains the most frequently misused substance, with a substantial number of Navy personnel entering treatment programs for alcohol use disorder. Additionally, tobacco use is prevalent, with many service members beginning to smoke after enlisting. The Navy has implemented smoking cessation programs and is working towards tobacco-free installations to combat this issue.

The Department of Defense and the Navy have taken steps to deter substance misuse, including the implementation of prevention and treatment programs. These efforts are crucial for maintaining Navy personnel’s health and readiness and supporting their reintegration into civilian life post-service.

Consequences of Substance Abuse Among Navy Personnel

The impact of substance misuse on Navy personnel encompasses a range of serious physical, psychological, and professional consequences. Substance misuse, particularly alcohol and drug misuse, is often linked to an array of health issues that can degrade mission effectiveness and personal quality of life. The systematic narrative review by Osborne et al. identifies four key themes: military characteristics and alcohol use, consequences of deployment on alcohol use, implications of mental health on alcohol use, and the role of cultural and social factors on alcohol use.

Physical Health Risks of Substance Abuse Among Navy Personnel

Substance misuse within the US Navy poses significant physical health risks to service members, impacting their readiness and overall well-being. Alcohol and drug misuse are often associated with a range of physical health problems that can impair a sailor’s ability to perform their duties effectively. Chronic substance misuse can lead to liver diseases, cardiovascular problems, respiratory issues, and increased risk of injury. Moreover, the use of illicit drugs can result in acute medical emergencies and long-term health complications.

The US Navy’s commitment to maintaining a combat-effective force necessitates stringent measures to deter substance misuse. According to the most recent OPNAV Instruction 5350.4E, the Navy has implemented policies and programs to prevent, educate, and treat substance misuse. The physical health of sailors is a critical component of the Navy’s operational capability, and substance misuse undermines this by increasing the likelihood of medical downgrading and limiting deployability.

Alcohol misuse, in particular, remains a concern as it is closely linked to distress and can exacerbate the risk of developing other health-related problems that degrade mission effectiveness. The Navy’s Health of the Force Report highlights the need for continuous efforts to address substance misuse and its associated health risks. The Navy needs to maintain a holistic approach that includes monitoring health behaviors, promoting mental well-being, and providing access to treatment options for service members struggling with substance misuse.

Psychological Consequences of Substance Abuse in Navy Personnel

Substance misuse within the US Navy not only affects physical health but also has profound psychological consequences. Navy personnel with substance use disorders (SUDs) often experience a range of mental health issues, including the worsening of pre-existing conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. The psychological impact is particularly pronounced among those who have been deployed to combat zones, with research indicating that deployed personnel are 1.36 times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder and 1.14 times more likely to develop a drug use disorder than their non-deployed counterparts.

The intertwining of PTSD and substance misuse in military populations is a significant concern, as approximately 58% of individuals seeking treatment for alcohol use disorder also meet the criteria for PTSD. The presence of both conditions can have severe implications for mental health, often leading to an increased risk of depression and other psychological distress. Cultural factors within the military, such as the normalization of alcohol use and the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues, further compound these challenges. Despite the availability of evidence-based treatments, many service members face barriers to accessing care, including perceived stigma and concerns about career impact.

Addressing the psychological effects of substance misuse in the Navy requires a multi-faceted approach that includes destigmatizing mental health treatment, enhancing access to care, and implementing integrated treatment strategies that address both SUDs and co-occurring mental health disorders such as PTSD. The importance of trauma-informed care interventions has been highlighted in recent studies, suggesting the need for a concerted effort to provide comprehensive and empathetic support to those affected.

Career Consequences of Substance Abuse in the US Navy

Substance misuse within the US Navy carries significant career implications for service members. The Navy’s stringent policies on substance use are designed to maintain high standards of readiness and performance. Any involvement with drugs or alcohol can lead to disciplinary action, including demotion, loss of security clearance, or even dishonorable discharge, which can have lifelong repercussions on employment opportunities and benefits. Substance use disorders (SUDs) can also hinder career advancement due to decreased productivity, impaired judgment, and increased risk of accidents or injuries.

Despite the Navy’s efforts to address and mitigate substance misuse through various deterrent and treatment programs, the stigma associated with seeking help for SUDs persists. This stigma can discourage individuals from accessing the necessary support, further jeopardizing their careers and well-being. The co-occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders is particularly concerning, as it can exacerbate mental health challenges and impact a service member’s ability to perform their duties.

It is imperative for Navy personnel to understand the career risks associated with substance misuse and to seek help proactively. The Navy’s commitment to evidence-based treatment and the integration of care for SUDs and PTSD is a step in the right direction, aiming to support recovery and maintain the careers of those who serve.

Strategies and Programs to Combat Substance Abuse in the US Navy

The US Navy has implemented a comprehensive strategy to combat substance misuse among its personnel, encompassing various programs and initiatives that align with Department of Defense policies. 

Navy Substance Abuse Prevention Programs

The US Navy has implemented various substance misuse prevention programs and strategies to maintain the health and readiness of its personnel. One such initiative is the Navy Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention (NADAP) program, which is designed to promote readiness, health, and wellness through the prevention and treatment of substance misuse. The NADAP is available on Navy installations worldwide, providing a supportive network for service members.

Another key program is the Drug Education for Youth (DEFY), established by SECNAVINST 5355.3A. DEFY collaborates with the US Department of Health and Human Services and is grounded in best practices from the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP). The program’s curriculum is regularly reviewed and updated to remain effective and relevant.

The Navy also operates the Navy Drug and Alcohol Counselor School (NDACS), a rigorous training program for enlisted personnel (E-4 through E-9) interested in becoming drug and alcohol counselors. This initiative ensures knowledgeable and skilled counselors are available to assist Navy members in need.

Furthermore, the Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program (SARP) at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth offers comprehensive services ranging from screening and preventive measures to Dual Diagnosis rehabilitative services for substance misuse/dependence. SARP includes various levels of treatment, including Prime for Life, Intensive Outpatient, Dual Diagnosis Residential treatment, and Continuing Care.

These prevention and treatment programs are part of a broader effort to address substance misuse within the Navy. They are complemented by policy guidance such as OPNAV Instruction 5350.4E, which outlines the Navy’s official stance on drug and alcohol deterrence.

Substance Abuse Treatment and Rehabilitation in the US Navy

The US Navy recognizes the critical importance of addressing substance misuse within its ranks and has established several programs dedicated to the treatment and rehabilitation of its personnel. The Navy Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program (SARP) is a cornerstone of these efforts, providing comprehensive services that range from screening and prevention to intensive outpatient and residential treatment. SARP’s primary objectives are to promote readiness, health, and wellness through effective substance misuse intervention.

For Navy personnel who require more specialized care, the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth offers a Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program that includes various levels of treatment, such as Prime for Life, Level 1 treatment, Level 2 Intensive Outpatient, Level 3 Dual Diagnosis Residential treatment, and Continuing Care. These programs are designed to address the unique needs of individuals struggling with substance misuse and co-occurring disorders.

To further support these initiatives, the Navy Drug and Alcohol Counselor School provides training for Alcohol and Drug Counselors (ADCs), ensuring that personnel receive care that meets established standards. Additionally, the Navy has embraced technology by partnering with Hazelden to provide online recovery support services, which is particularly beneficial for younger sailors and those on active duty who may prefer digital platforms for support.

The Navy’s comprehensive approach to combating substance misuse includes not only treatment and rehabilitation but also a focus on education, detection, and deterrence. Through these multi-faceted efforts, the Navy aims to maintain a healthy, resilient community and ensure the readiness of its service members.

Challenges and Future Directions in Navy Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment

The US Navy faces significant challenges in addressing substance misuse among its personnel, which include cultural factors, deployment-related stress, and the stigma associated with seeking treatment. Military service members are at a higher risk for developing substance use disorders (SUDs) compared to civilians, particularly those who have been deployed to combat zones. Studies indicate that veterans returning from deployment exhibit higher rates of SUD diagnoses, and those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) demonstrate a higher rate of comorbidity with SUDs.

One of the primary challenges is the low rate of referral to SUD treatment services, often due to the stigma of seeking help and concern over career impact. To combat this, the Navy has implemented programs like the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment (ADAPT) program, which aims to promote readiness and wellness through the prevention and treatment of substance misuse. However, there is a need for more reliable screening, referral protocols, and the use of evidence-based practices across military programs.

Future directions for improvement include enhancing prevention strategies for new active duty personnel, integrating treatment for SUDs and PTSD, incorporating interdisciplinary pain management approaches, and reducing reliance on long-term opioid therapy. The Navy also recognizes the need for a collective effort to maintain combat effectiveness by being adaptable, innovative, and resilient and holding themselves accountable to Sailors and their families.

Addiction Treatment for Veterans 

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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