February 11, 2015

We often think of drug and alcohol use in the military as a modern phenomenon that began with the Vietnam War. In reality, drug and alcohol use has been a part of the armed forces for almost as long as the armed forces have been in existence – not just in the United States, but the world over.

Even as far back as ancient Rome soldiers drank wine regularly, regardless of quality, because “it gave them energy.” (1) During World War II, Nazi soldiers used speed and other drugs as performance enhancers. (2)

Alcohol and other drugs were also used to treat the injuries and pain associated with war. As warfare became more advanced and destructive, the injuries became more complex, and so did the methods for treating them. Morphine became available as early as 1853 and was instrumental in treating pain in field hospitals and even on the battlefield.

Unfortunately, with use came the risk of abuse, and the military was no exception.

While morphine helped save lives, it also left many soldiers vulnerable to addiction, even years after leaving combat. Soldiers on both the Axis and Allied sides of WWII returned home with drug and alcohol addictions, and Vietnam helped bring heroin to America.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse in the Military

Although rates of drug and alcohol abuse among military personnel are lower than in the civilian population — 2.3 percent of military vs 12 percent civilian (3) — it is still considered a public health crisis. There has been a marked rise in rates of prescription drug abuse among active duty personnel, as well as high rates of alcohol abuse and binge drinking. Additionally, although substance abuse is only reported in 2.3 percent of all active active-duty personnel, there can be high percentages within certain groups.

For example, 12 to 15 percent of soldiers deployed to Iraq tested positive for alcohol problems.

The rates of substance abuse among veterans are markedly higher than that of active-duty personnel, with approximately 20 percent of combat veterans developing drug or alcohol problems after discharge.

Reasons for the Rates of Substance Abuse

Boredom, depression and anxiety are most often cited as the reasons individuals turn to drugs and alcohol during active duty. Injuries in the line of duty are another cause, with many soldiers being prescribed prescription pain killers to treat both combat and non-combat related injuries, such as back pain from heavy lifting. Over time, soldiers could become dependent on the pain killers, leading to addiction and even the use of other drugs including illegal opioid narcotics.

With veterans, there is a strong correlation between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction. If the veteran is not in treatment, or has not found ways to cope, he could turn to drugs and/or alcohol to self-medicate. Additionally, veterans who have previous injuries could take medication, including narcotic medications, to treat pain, anxiety, insomnia, and other symptoms.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), deployment and trauma-related stress can also have a negative impact on the children and spouses of active-duty personnel and veterans (4), leading to higher rates of substance abuse among those groups.

Possible Solutions

The most important step is ensuring that veterans and military personnel have the proper support when they return from active service. Currently, approximately half of returning service members who need mental healthcare actively seeks help, and only 50 percent of those who seek help actually receive adequate treatment and care.

Access to adequate mental health care is not the only issue; there have also been increases in homelessness among veterans, which can significantly interfere with getting adequate care. A Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) report published by SAMHSA in January 2014, reported that 21 percent of veterans with substance abuse issues were homeless, with a significant number of them being over age 40.

Veterans and active service members who can have access to care, and learn constructive ways to cope and adjust to life outside of the military have a better chance of recovering from substance abuse, and even avoiding it.

Having access to reliable housing can facilitate the recovery process, and also remove some of the stress that could directly contribute to their substance abuse problem.

Resources And Further Reading:

1.  Facts and Details; Wine and Drugs in Ancient Rome

2.  Spiegel Online: The Nazi Death Machine: Hitler’s Drugged Soldiers

3.  LaPaloma Drug and Alcohol Help for Those with Co-occurring Disorders: Drug Addiction in the Military

4.  SAMHSA: Veterans and Military Families

5.  Military Bases: 7 Hobbies to Help Veterans Adjust

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