Substance Use and Military Life

General Risk of Substance Use Disorders

The stresses of deployments and the unique culture of the military offer both risks and protective factors related to substance use among active duty personnel.1 Deployment is associated with smoking initiation, unhealthy drinking, drug use and risky behaviors. Zero-tolerance policies, lack of confidentiality and mandatory random drug testing that might deter drug use can also add to stigma, and could discourage many who need treatment from seeking it. For example, half of military personnel have reported that they believe seeking help for mental health issues would negatively affect their military career. However, overall, illicit drug use among active duty personnel is relatively low and cigarette smoking and misuse of prescription drugs have decreased in recent years. In contrast, rates of binge drinking are high compared to the general population.

Service members can face dishonorable discharge and even criminal prosecution for a positive drug test, which can discourage illicit drug use. Once active duty personnel leave the military some protective influences are gone, and substance use and other mental health issues become of greater concern.

More than one in ten veterans have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder, slightly higher than the general population.3 One study found that the overall prevalence of substance use disorders (SUDs) among male veterans was lower than rates among their civilian counterparts when all ages were examined together. However, when looking at the pattern for only male veterans aged 18–25 years, the rates were higher in veterans compared with civilians. The veteran population is also greatly impacted by several critical issues related to substance use, such as pain, suicide risk, trauma, and homelessness.

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Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.