Life in the military is different from that of civilians. Yet, members of the armed forces are just as susceptible to substance use/abuse culture and its effects as civilians.

According to the health care trends of the military, the use of recreational or illegal drugs is actually lower among veterans as compared to that among civilians. However, members of the armed forces are prone to heavy reliance on tobacco and alcohol use. A more alarming and prevalent culture among militants is the abuse of prescription drugs.

Why Is Substance Abuse Prevalent in the Military?

military and addiction

The lifestyles of the members of the armed forces are extremely different from our own. As a result, the challenges they encounter are unique, emotionally demanding, and quite different from the kinds of ordeals we deal with as average adults.

Consequences of the traumatizing events witnessed during wartime stationing and the pressures of performing optimally contribute to the stress levels that militants face. In addition, the responsibility of protecting the nation also plays a significant part in increasing stress levels.

The combination of these stress-inducers leads to the rise of alcohol, tobacco and prescription drug abuse in the military. Many of the militants stationed within war zones are at constant exposure to war and are more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder. This happens because they need to find a way to cope with the mid-combat trauma, the rapid climate change, and their fears of ill-performance.

On the other hand, the rise of binge drinking and underage drinking in the military is influenced by the availability of alcohol in the bases at cheap rates. This makes alcohol easily accessible, resulting in high consumption.

Many reports also suggest that the reliance on substances, particularly prescription drugs, is due to the increase in the dosage of painkillers in cases of war-related injuries. In 2009, the number of painkillers prescribed to militants were 3.8 million. This was 4 times more than the prescriptions in 2001. While prescription drugs are important for the members of the military to cope with injuries and strain, they also expose them to the risk of addiction.

Why Don’t They Seek Help?

To begin, substances relieve militants of momentary pressure and trauma. Continued abuse of these substances allows them to ‘escape’ their current state of mind, which is exactly what they want when they’re amidst devastation.

However, another prominent reason why they feel discouraged in seeking help is because of the stigma attached to substance abuse and addiction problems. Fear of being stigmatized or becoming unemployed holds these militants back from actually confessing that they have a problem.

In addition, the military has a no-tolerance policy. If a problem is identified, instead of being treated, the person with a substance abuse disorder is expelled out of the force. Lack of discretion in the military also dissuades individuals from seeking help as they fear being bullied by other members.

Illegal and Prescription Drugs

A survey was conducted by the Department of Defense (DoD) in 2008 to observe the health related patterns among on-duty military members. It was observed that only 2.3% of the militants were found using an illegal/ recreational drug. Compared to this statistic, the figure for civilians was extremely high, amounting to 12% of the population relying on illegal drugs.

Breaking down the survey, the figure for those between the ages 18 and 25 years who were prone to using illegal drugs in the military was 3.9%. Once again, this figure was extremely low in comparison to that of the civilians who amounted to 17.2% of the users.  

Fortunately, the use of illegal recreational drugs is less common among members of the armed forces. Often, this is credited to the zero-tolerance policy that was introduced by the DoD in 1982, which prohibited the use of illegal drugs and convicted users of criminal behavior upon positive drug test results.

However, the problem of substance abuse remains prevalent in the military as they are more likely to develop a reliance on prescription drugs. In the same study of 2008, it was revealed that 11% of the members had a (prescription) substance abuse problem, which was significantly higher compared to that of 2005, which amounted to 4%.

Alcohol and Tobacco Dependency

The use of alcohol and tobacco (chewing and smoking) is also higher among veterans as compared to civilians. In 2008, around 47% of the militants (men and women) were revealed to binge drink and chain smoke, which was only 12% back in 1998.  

For both alcohol and tobacco, the dependency among active duty militants is much higher than those who are inactive.

PTSD and Substance Abuse

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder that occurs when an individual has gone through traumatic experiences. In this condition, individuals are likely to experience flashbacks of the traumatic experience, hallucinate or re-experience the traumatic event, or experience post-trauma depression.

PTSD usually coexists with substance abuse problems in the military. According to the studies, around 50% of the inactive military members undergoing substance abuse treatments or alcohol use treatments are simultaneously seeking PTSD treatment.

This has led many health experts to conclude that one of the major reasons of the substance abuse problem is the need for coping with trauma experienced during and after deployment.

Addressing the Crisis

In a study conducted by the Institute of Medicine for DoD in 2012, several ways of addressing the prevailing crisis of the substance abuse problem in the military were introduced. The report encourages military physicians to monitor the drug doses they prescribe and advises them to keep switching between medications. It also suggests eliminating easy access to alcohol in military bases.

Furthermore, the report also identifies the problem with lack of discretion within the military and suggests an increase in senior personnel confidentiality to encourage users to address their problems. It also recognizes the problem of stigmatization and bullying, and suggests promoting a more accepting culture.

Government agencies are taking all kinds of measures, such as investing in research and searching for substitutes to painkillers, to harbor a drug-free environment in the military. If you yourself are a veteran, or know any current or former military personnel suffering from PTSD or addiction, reach out to Arizona Addiction Recovery Center today. After all you’ve done for our country, the least we can do is be an aid in your recovery.

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