The escalation in alcohol and drug abuse in the U.S. military has been well-documented over the past decade, but the Defense Department continues to use outmoded strategies for diagnosing, treating and preventing substance abuse among military personnel.
This was the finding of a major new study conducted by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences. The study calls the current level of substance abuse among troops a “public health crisis.”
The study found that heavy drinking and binge drinking have become widespread and that substance abuse in the military has been “transformed” by an increase in the rate of prescription drug abuse. The study also reported that treatment for service members and their families is limited due to staffing shortage and a lack of coverage for treatment as well as a military culture that stigmatizes mental health disorders.
Some Statistics about Heavy Drinking in the Military
According to the study, about 20% of military personnel on active duty report that they drink heavily and 47% admit to binge drinking. About 11% reported that they misuse prescription drugs, especially opioid painkillers. Abuse of prescription drugs is growing at a faster rate in the military than among the civilian population and may be more common than the use of marijuana, cocaine and other illegal drugs.
The study was requested by members of Congress and conducted under the leadership of Charles O’Brien, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Studies of Addiction. O’Brien and other authors of the report that summarized the study advise the Department of Defense to make sure that substance abuse is taken seriously and handled consistently by all branches of the military.
Because alcohol and drug abuse in the military are often associated with post traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts, better detection and treatment of substance abuse could also lead to treatment for related disorders.
Some of the specific recommendations from the study include:
• Reduce access to alcohol on military bases and enforce regulations against underage drinking.
• Primary care providers should screen military personnel for alcohol abuse and provide counseling when risky drinking behavior is identified.
• Military health care workers should be trained to recognize substance abuse and provide referrals to mental health specialists when needed.
• Confidentiality should be maintained for service members who seek substance abuse treatment.
The study noted that the Defense Department has guidelines in place for the treatment of substance abuse disorders but they are not followed in a consistent manner.
In response to the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense said that the study is being analyzed by Pentagon officials and areas that need improvement will be addressed.