Deployed military personnel undergo extreme physical and psychological strain. The lasting effects of war affect returning veterans and their families, impairing their ability to live common lives. Along with the expected physical ramifications of combat, soldiers often experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

 

Addiction in the Military

 

It is not uncommon for returning veterans to turn to substance abuse to cope with these issues. While the Department of Defense has reported a decrease in tobacco and illicit drug use over the years, heavy alcohol and prescription drug abuse has grown tremendously. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that more than 20 percent of returning veterans with PTSD also suffer from substance abuse.

Alcohol abuse is the most prevalent and poses significant physical and mental health risks. A study of soldiers returning from Iraq found that nearly one third met criteria for alcohol abuse and were at risk for detrimental behavior associated with drinking (e.g. drinking and driving, abusing other drugs). Furthermore, though many soldiers report personal concerns about alcohol abuse, few are referred to treatment.

Accompanying substance abuse among returning veterans is mental illness. In another study, medical professionals identified 20 percent of active and 42 percent of reserve soldiers as requiring mental health treatment. Drug or alcohol abuse is most common in returning soldiers with psychological trauma and is routinely involved in suicide and non-fatal suicide attempts.

In order to record and address these issues, the Millennium Cohort Study, the largest prospective study in United States history, was launched to follow a representative sample of U.S. military personnel from 2001 to 2022. This study suggests that deployed soldiers with combat experience are more likely to exhibit weekly heavy drinking, binge drinking, and other alcohol related problems. Tobacco smoking initiation and relapse also increase with combat exposure, implying the need for prevention strategies throughout and after the deployment process. A host of government agencies and community support groups are working together to develop prevention and treatment measures for returning veterans and their families.

Efforts are also being made to help veterans access drug treatment through improving internet-based intervention processes and studying the use of drug courts, which encourage rehabilitation for criminals who have committed nonviolent drug-related crimes without the use of prisons. Because returning veterans with substance abuse problems often have run ins with the criminal justice system, specialized drug courts could provide education and support they could not regularly have the opportunity to access.

Other efforts conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and National Institutes of Health are serving to fund and accelerate research on identification, prevention, and treatment of drug and alcohol abuse as well as recurring mental health issues in veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. This research will analyze co-occurring problems (such as the relationship between poor mental health and substance abuse), how effective early intervention is on returning soldiers, and the high smoking rates of military personnel.

 

These measures should serve to provide effective prevention and treatment of the problems that plague the men and women who protect and serve the United States.

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