The Army reports that instances of alcohol abuse among its soldiers have doubled over the past five years. As far back as 2008, a Department of Defense Health Behavior Survey reported that while use of tobacco and illicit drugs was decreasing, abuse of alcohol and prescription medications was on the rise. A study of troops returning from deployment to Iraq found that in the months following their return, 27 percent met the criteria for alcohol abuse.
Dr. Les McFarling, head of the Army's substance abuse program, reports that 13,000 soldiers within the last year were treated for substance abuse. Of that number, all but 1,900 were treated for abuse of alcohol.
Military Personnel at Greatest Risk for Substance Abuse
The Millenium Cohort Study is currently underway and will be the largest prospective study in military history examining issues of substance abuse among a representative sample of military troops. The study is being conducted from 2001-2022, but already is yielding important information. So far, the data indicate that Reserve, National Guard and younger members of the military are at the highest risk for abuse of alcohol.
The problem is not limited to those segments of the military population, as the increase in alcohol abuse is an overall upward trend, and one that the military is taking very seriously. According to the Army Vice Chief of Staff, substance abuse is considered to be one of the largest health challenges facing today's military.
To date, no link has been established between incidences of alcohol abuse and the frequency a solider deploys. Those involved with treatment do say that repeated cycles of training, deployment, fighting and transitioning home create stresses that soldiers often respond to by self-medicating with alcohol.
Substance Abuse Counselors to Increase 30 Percent
To demonstrate their commitment to addressing that challenge, the Army is seeking to augment its current staff of substance abuse counselors by 30 percent. The army currently employs approximately 400 counselors around the world. A March 2010 report recommended that 560 counselors be in place as soon as possible, which has led to the Army recently posting 130 new job openings in the counseling field.
The Army has been steadily increasing the number of psychologists it employs for a number of years, but still is facing a staffing shortage. The military is having a tough time supplying the needed psychologists to its troops because of a shortage of psychologists in the private sector.
As a consequence of the pressing need for substance abuse counselors and the apparent scarcity of available psychologists, the Army has penned a directive that will open the door to other independent practitioners. It is expected that other branches of the military facing similar constraints will follow the Army's lead.