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Substance abuse affects many individuals and their families. Members of the armed forces are not immune from developing substance abuse disorders. Drug use is typically lower in the military than it is among civilians because of the zero-tolerance policy, but it is common and is increasing.

When joining the military, individuals quickly realize their whole life is about to change. Soldiers must follow rules regarding their haircut, clothing, what time to wake up or go to bed, and even their common daily activities. Soldiers also feel that their freedom is also affected, because they put the needs of others above their own. Over time, the stress of a military life and duties may lead a person to substance abuse as a way of relieving stress, relieving bordom and as an overall coping mechanism.

Prescription and Illicit Drugs in the Military

The Department of Defense (DoD) Survey of Health-Related Behaviors states that in Active Duty Military Personnel, approximately 2.3 percent have used an illicit drug within the last month. This number is compared to the 12 percent of civilians. Between the age of 18 and 25, the rate of military drug use was 3.9 percent compared to the 17.2 percent of civilians.

The reason illicit use is lower in the military for the last two decades is attributed to the zero-tolerance policy enforced by the Pentagon. The zero-tolerance policy was first introduced in the military in 1982 and is enforced by random drug testing. Military personnel face dishonorable discharge and criminal prosecution if caught.

Even with the low reports of drug use in the military, the numbers continue to increase. In 2008, 11 percent of military members reported prescription drug abuse, or 2 percent higher than in 2002, and 4 percent higher than in 2005. Prescription medications commonly abused in the military are opioid pain medications.

Opioid pain medications are readily available as pain treatment for injuries experienced while on duty. The written opioid prescriptions have quadrupled in the military from 2001 to 2009 by almost 3.8 million. This increases the chance of opioid abuse and addiction.

Tobacco and Alcohol Use Among Soldiers

The misuse of alcohol is also increasing among the men and women in the military relative to civilian rates. Close to half of active duty members (47 percent) have reported binge drinking in 2008 which is 35 percent higher than 1998. Also, in 2008, 20 percent of soldiers have reported binge drinking just about every week within that month. This rate is even higher at 27 percent of those having exposure to high combat.

In 2008, 30 percent of soldiers had reported to smoking cigarettes which compares to 29 percent of civilians. Like alcohol misuse, the rates of tobacco use are higher among those who have been highly exposed to combat than for those who have not been exposed.

Substance Abuse and Suicide

Though the military’s suicide rates are lower than civilians within the same age range, suicide is still a serious problem in the Armed Services. Suicidal thoughts remain a highly stigmatized subject for many service members, which makes prevention more difficult. Substance abuse can and has played a role in many of these suicide cases. The Army Suicide Prevention Task Force in 2010 determined that 29 percent of active Army suicides from 2005 to 2009 was related to drug or alcohol abuse. In 2009, one-third of the military suicides were accompanied by prescription drug use.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction

Drug abuse and alcohol are closely linked, merely because many individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) ‘self-medicate’ with depressants, alcohol or other stimulants. When a doctor is trying to treat an individual with PTSD, they should first know about the patient’s alcohol drinking habits. The treatment process cannot begin when someone is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This is also true for those in the military when treating a drug addiction. A doctor will need to evaluate the trauma to customize a treatment plan.

Understanding Treatment and Recovery Options

Depending on the form of addiction, many treatment options are available for all individuals including active military members. The military has taken proactive steps to help control the rising prescription abuse among members. The Army has improved the situation by limiting the prolonged use of prescription opioid drugs to six months. A pharmacist screens and observes each soldier who is taking multiple prescription drugs. Each branch in the military has their own equivalent substance use program.

Those who are in the military and suffer from a drug addiction are covered under TRICARE. The government agencies and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) have funded treatment and prevention programs. These programs also help military personnel, military veterans and family members understand the causes of their loved one’s mental health issues and drug abuse.

If you are an active duty or military veteran and suffer from addiction or substance use disorders, contact Serenity Acres for an evaluation and for customized treatment programs. We want to thank our great service men and women as well as offer our appreciation, respect, and support!