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Substance Abuse Within the Military

This is a contributed article by Helen Young:

 Military troops and veterans are generally regarded to be some of the most disciplined and 'strong' members of our society. So it may come as a surprise to learn that they are just as susceptible, if not more, to substance abuse and addiction as other civilians. Research indicates that tobacco, alcohol and prescription drug abuse are on the rise within the US military forces and factors such as the stressful nature of their job, military culture and trouble integrating back into society following a period of deployment (along with the possibility of PTSD) are thought to be some of the reasons behind these surprising statistics. 

We are all guilty of making judgmental assumptions when it comes to those who are 'most likely' engage in substance abuse, but there are actually several unlikely sections of society that are suffering. Military troops and veterans fall into this category. Here are some of the reasons behind this invisible abuse.

Alcohol culture

People in the military may abuse alcohol for the same reasons that civilians do – because they want to unwind, relax and forget about their problems. It is estimated that 47% - almost half – of servicemen and women binge drink on a monthly basis. This figure is similar to that of college students - perhaps a less surprising section of society to engage in alcohol abuse. Along with drinking as a stress reliever, there is also a certain culture within the military in which servicemen may ritualistically get together over a few drinks to socialize and bond. Indeed, research states that historically alcohol was used as a form of 'man management' to encourage and allow men to let loose and relive stress. But when this stops being an occasional, enjoyable pastime and starts to become a dependency it can have real consequences. Being drunk or hungover can majority impact cognitive function, reducing readiness and making you less equipped to fulfill your duties properly. In the military this can have life endangering consequences for both you and your colleagues.


Like alcohol, tobacco is legal but in vast quantities can be detrimental to the health. It might not present the same sort of immediate performance issues as drinking or drug abuse but over time it can have a serious impact on overall health. Similarly to alcohol, tobacco use tends to begin after joining the military with one study indicating that 30% of smokers within the military began after joining. Again, this could be seen as a coping mechanism or way of fitting in with peers.

Drug dependency

The military issues a strict zero tolerance policy in regards to illicit drugs so rates of this sort of substance abuse are generally quite low. However, it still remains one of the top reasons for military discharge in the United States. Prescription drug abuse, however, is another matter. One study placed the rates of prescription drug use within the military at 11.7% which is two and a half times higher than prescription drug use in civilians. When servicemen are required to monitor and regulate their own intake of anti-depressant medication, opiate painkillers and other prescription drugs it can lead to unintentional misuse and later, addiction. This can have a very detrimental effect on both their personal and professional lives, especially when faced with the possibility of running out of their medication and being forced to go cold turkey.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Integration Issues

During or after a stint in the military, especially after being involved in combat or working within a warzone, many servicemen experience after effects from the traumatic things they have witnessed or been involved in. Many servicemen returning from combat are though to suffer from substance abuse and PTSD with studies revealing a clear link between the two. Once home, integrating back into normal life following a deployment can also be a tough adjustment. Returning servicemen may feel isolated, bored or unable to simply slot back in to their previous life. In this situation they may turn to substance abuse in an attempt to dull the pain and mask their emotions. They miss the support and camaraderie of their fellow troops and feel disconnected from those around them, even if they have a tight knit and loving family and friendship circle. This is why therapy and treatment are so essential to those suffering from mental illness or trauma following (or during) their time in the military.


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