Prevalence of Military Personnel Substance Abuse on the Rise

Prevalence of Military Personnel Substance Abuse on the Rise

Our Country’s military service members endure great challenges and stresses during their careers and after they exit active service. Military operations in recent years have led to a spike in combat exposure, injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse. Veterans are often returning home sore, injured, traumatized, and in need of rehabilitation. In this article we will briefly explore the nature of drug abuse within our military and discuss the treatment gaps that exist in the military health care paradigm.

The Nature of the Problem
There are marked differences in the nature of drug abuse within the military compared to the civilian population. The strains of wartime deployment and the unique military culture account for some of these differences. Although rates of illegal substance use are lower among military personnel than among civilians, prescription drug and alcohol use are higher. Considering the military’s zero tolerance policies, the high stigma associated with illegal drugs in the military, and the propensity for service members to sustain serious injuries, these trends make sense.


Rates of prescription drug abuse have increased dramatically over the past thirteen years. From 2002 to 2005, prescription drug abuse doubled amongst U.S. military service members and nearly tripled between 2005 and 2008. Additionally, military personnel have substantially higher rates of prescription drug abuse than civilians. In 2008, a survey revealed that 11% of service members reported prescription drug abuse compared to only 5% among the civilian population.
Unique Treatment Challenges
Many service members feel they must remain stoic and not talk about their problems. For some of these individuals, relief can be found in alcohol or other substances. Military personnel receiving opioid pain medications for injury often find that these drugs provide a kind of psychic relief as well. What begins as a legitimate need may become its own beast – an addiction to opioid pain medications.


Active military personnel suffering from substance abuse disorders are in a disadvantageous position with regard to treatment. There are numerous shortcomings in the substance abuse treatment infrastructure within our military. Most prominent among these shortcomings are a lack of professionals trained to handle the immensity of military drug addiction, a lack of confidentiality for patients, and a military culture which stigmatizes addiction and evokes fear in affected individuals.
A 2012 report conducted by the Institute of Medicine recommended various means of addressing military substance abuse, including increasing the use of evidence-based preventions and treatments, expanding access to care, increasing confidentiality, and shifting the cultural climate to mitigate stigma and fear.


Recently, some changes have been implemented to address the growing problem. The Department of Defense has mandated increased prescription drug monitoring and restrictions on their use. Access to alternative therapies such as yoga, acupuncture, and counseling has been increased. Despite these changes, many service members are not receiving the treatment they require. Much work remains to be done in order to adequately serve those who serve us.
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