Substance Abuse Among Active Duty Military Personnel

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Addiction rates are particularly high among active duty military members, and one-third of these professionals regularly engage in heavy drinking. Due to stigma, some military members may fear that asking for help suggests a lack of capability.

Addiction In The Military

Serving in the U.S. military is commendable but entails a great deal of sacrifice. Straightaway, military service members must leave loved ones behind and adapt to military life.

This experience is the reality for the 6% of the U.S. population that has served, or is currently serving, in the armed forces. Of all military service members, 15% face combat exposure.

Major life changes and potential trauma and injuries may at least partially explain why one-third of military personnel experience addiction, with alcohol use disorder (AUD) being the most common.

Read more about careers with a high risk of addiction

Rates Of Substance Abuse Among Active Military Members

Alcohol use, illicit drug use, and prescription drug use all exist in the military to some extent. However, alcohol use is the most common.

More than 33% of active military members binge drink and/or meet the criteria for AUD. The prevalence of alcohol abuse in the military is over five times that of the general population (6%).

The U.S. military maintains zero-tolerance policies when it comes to drug use. Service members are also subject to random drug testing up to three times a year.

Military members who test positive for drugs can face dishonorable discharge and even criminal prosecution. Heavy penalties for drug use are believed to discourage members from using drugs.

Prescription Drug Use In The Military

Roughly 4% of the active military population abuse prescription medication. For many, prescription drug abuse begins with the use of opioids to treat overuse and combat-related injuries.

One study found that nearly all active-duty service members with combat-related injuries are prescribed opioid pain medication, putting them at an increased risk of opioid use disorder (OUD).

Type Of Drug Use Rate Of Addiction Trend
Alcohol Use 30% High and steady
Illicit Drug Use Less than 1% Consistent
Prescription Drug Abuse 4% Decreasing

Signs Of Addiction In Active Duty Military Personnel

There are telltale physical and behavioral health signs when a person has substance use problems. Some of these signs may be more apparent depending on the frequency of use.

Common signs of a substance use disorder (SUD) include:

  • bloodshot, glossy eyes
  • eyes with pupils that are pinhole-sized or oversized
  • mood changes, e.g., heightened irritability, anxiety, or paranoia
  • shakiness or tremors
  • slurred speech
  • sudden weight loss or gain
  • changes in sleeping patterns
  • periods of unusual hyperactivity or lack of energy
  • diminished concern for physical appearance

Common signs of substance abuse among active military include:

  • reduced performance
  • uncharacteristic lateness or absences
  • lack of motivation
  • sudden and unexplained need for money, e.g., frequently asking to borrow money
  • trouble with colleagues or superiors
  • partaking in secretive or suspicious behaviors

Risk Factors For Addiction Among Active Military Members

Active service members face stressors that differ entirely from civilian life. Many of these stressors involve adapting to military life and/or coping with trauma.

Stressors Of Deployment

About 15% of military members are deployed. Deployment involves leaving a home base in the U.S. and heading to a location overseas.

Being away from family disturbs the stability of relationships and affects parents, children, and spouses alike. Deployment in the military can last anywhere from 90 days to 15 months.

Service members must acclimate to sometimes extreme environments in foreign places. Abrupt changes to living conditions as well as occasional boredom can lead to substance abuse.

Exposure To Trauma

Almost 15% of American military members face combat exposure. Experiencing trauma or suffering injuries like a traumatic brain injury can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD can also be caused by repeated threats to personal safety, which can be traumatic. Training accidents and military sexual trauma (MST) can also cause PTSD.

About 7% of military veterans have PTSD. The risk of PTSD is higher among those who experience deployment and combat, and PTSD is correlated with substance abuse.

Mental Health Issues

There is a higher rate of mental health disorders among active-duty military personnel compared to civilians.

Depression affects 23% of service members, which is higher than the general population (18.4%).

Depression, and the desire to cope, is also linked to substance abuse. Despite the knowledge of depression rates, there is still much work to be done by healthcare providers to better support members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Easy Access To Alcohol

Just as alcohol is readily available in grocery stores, liquor stores, and some gas stations, it’s also sold on military bases. Alcohol is duty-free on bases, which means that it’s about 5% cheaper.

Military members are permitted to drink alcohol in the barracks during off-duty hours. Some barracks have restrictions on the amount of alcohol permitted, though it’s still easy to come by.

Workplace Culture

Military members with substance abuse issues may feel discouraged to ask for help with mental health issues. They may be fearful that admitting an addiction may result in severe penalties.

Active military of all ranks may feel the need to appear strong-minded and capable, and may falsely believe that having an SUD means the opposite.

Supporting Active Military Members With Addiction

There are many treatment options for people in the armed forces with substance abuse issues. The U.S. Army, Marine Corps, and Navy manage their own SUD and mental health treatment programs for service members.

Inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment programs are available nationwide for active-duty military. Service members can also access support groups online such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Military OneSource is available through the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and provides consultations, coaching, and non-medical counseling for navigating military life.

Service members can explore other means of mental healthcare treatment, such as trauma-informed therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to work through mental health problems and substance use issues.

When active military complete their service period, support for mental health conditions like substance abuse is also available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Get Help For Substance Abuse Today

Addiction is a difficult disease, but help is available. If you or a loved one is dealing with a substance use disorder, contact to find a treatment facility today.


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