The Unique Risk Factors for Alcoholism in Active Duty Service Members

The rate of alcoholism in the military tends to be higher than the rate in the civilian population.1 Specifically, many people on active duty struggle with alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder. Active duty military members include anyone in full-time service to the military, not just those deployed or in combat zones.

Alcohol Use Among Active Duty Military Members

Alcoholism in the military is a significant concern, with many active duty military personnel engaging in problematic alcohol use, such binge drinking and hazardous drinking, which is a pattern of drinking that increases a person’s risk of harm.

The 2015 Health Related Behavior Survey (HRBS) provided some statistics to better understand the prevalence of alcohol use among this group. According to the survey:1

  • 30% of service members were current binge drinkers at the time of the survey.
  • 33.5% of the active-duty military met the criteria for hazardous drinking, as measured by the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) for Consumption.
  • 8.2% of service members experienced serious consequences from drinking in the past year (e.g., “I hit someone after having too much to drink”).

Additional studies have found that an estimated 34,400 arrests occur per year in the military due to excessive alcohol use.2 Half of these arrests are for military members caught driving while under the influence of alcohol. The same data indicated that each year 10,400 active-duty military are unable to deploy because of excessive alcohol use, and 2,200 per year are separated from service duty for the same reason.2

The rate of alcohol use also varied according to certain population groups as follows:2

  • Military men were nearly 3.5 times more likely to report frequent heavy alcohol consumption than women in the military.
  • Hispanic and non-Hispanic white people exhibited higher rates of problematic alcohol consumption than non-Hispanic Black people.
  • The personnel with the lowest rankings rated six times greater in frequent heavy alcohol consumption when compared with officers.

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Contributing Factors to Alcohol Use

The culture that is often found in the military can contribute to problematic alcohol consumption. The 2015 HRBS found that among active-duty service members, 68.2% perceived the culture as supportive of alcohol consumption, and almost half of the population indicated that their supervisor does not discourage alcohol use.1

In addition to the influence of military culture on alcohol use, the following are found to be risk factors for alcohol use and addiction as well:1,2,3,4,5

  • Physical and social alcohol availability
  • On-base alcohol prices and sales policies
  • Pro-alcohol attitudes and rituals
  • High stress and pressure environment
  • Isolation from other social groups and separation from family
  • Young age
  • Single status
  • Lower pay grade
  • Mental health symptoms
  • Trauma and violence

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use, seeking help is the best thing you can do. Call our helpline at 800-839-1686Who Answers? to speak to a nonjudgmental and compassionate rehab support specialist. They can assist you in finding the right alcohol treatment program.

Mental Health and Alcohol Use Disorder

Studies have found a high correlation between mental health symptoms and alcohol use disorder (AUD) among active duty military personnel. The stigma associated with seeking mental health care may cause many people in the military to avoid getting the treatment they need. In fact, half of military personnel have reported that they believe seeking help for mental trahealth disorders would negatively affect their military career.3 There also tends to be a lack of confidentiality in the military that may prevent members from feeling comfortable enough to talk about their mental health struggles or to seek therapy.3

Some of the mental health conditions that occur alongside AUD in active military personnel may include:2,6

Those who have experienced combat in the military are at a higher risk of these mental health conditions and also for alcoholism. In a 2007 study, 12% to 15% of veterans reported problematic alcohol use in the three to six months following their return from combat.2 Another study conducted in 2010 examined the relationships among experiences with killing within combat and the psychological adjustment of combat veterans. The study found that killing during combat was related to PTSD symptoms but also was linked to problematic alcohol use among the same group.2

It is common for active duty military personnel to use alcohol as a means of “self-medicating” their distressing mental health symptoms.2 Alcohol use is thought to be negatively reinforcing in that it provides individuals with immediate relief from psychiatric symptoms, but that relief is short-lived. Because the effects of alcohol are fleeting, military members may begin to use it more frequently and in higher amounts as time goes on in order to gain the same relief.2

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Alcohol Use Among Veterans

When active duty service members leave the military, some protective influences are gone, and alcohol use, along with other mental health issues, can become of greater concern.3 Veterans often face a difficult readjustment period when leaving active duty that can cause stress and other psychological symptoms that could lead to using alcohol as a way to cope.

More than one in 10 veterans have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder. A study conducted in 2017 shows the following data:3

  • 56.6% of veterans were likely to use alcohol in a one-month period.
  • 7.5% of veterans reported heavy alcohol consumption in a one-month period.
  • 65% of veterans who enter a treatment program report alcohol as the most frequently misused substance.

The veteran population is also greatly impacted by several critical issues related to substance use, such as pain, suicide risk, trauma, and homelessness.3

When Should You Seek Treatment?

If you are concerned that you or someone you love may be dealing with alcohol use disorder, you can visit the VA’s site for more assistance. The VA has developed a brief questionnaire to help veterans identify possible signs or symptoms of an alcohol addiction or addiction to another substance.7 The site ensures that the results of your questionnaire will be completely confidential and will not be stored or sent anywhere. After completing the self-assessment, you will have the option to print a copy of the results that you can keep simply for your own records, or you can share it with your physician or mental health professional.7

Where Can You Find Help?

The military has made some recent changes in the options offered to service members seeking help for AUD and mental health conditions. In 2016, the military’s Tricare health system for active duty personnel announced it was expanding its treatment services to include intensive outpatient programs.3 The military now offers an alcohol and drug use assessment tool on their health website.8

The Veterans Administration (VA) has also developed the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide. This strategy aids in identifying priorities, organizing efforts, and contributing to a national focus on suicide prevention among veterans.3

You can also call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to speak to a treatment support specialist about your AUD and discuss possible treatment options.

Resources

  1. Military Health System. (2015). 2015 Department of Defense Health Related Behaviors Survey (HRBS).
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol and Stress in the Military.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (October, 2019). Substance Use and Military Life.
  4. Ames, G. and Cunradi, C. (n.d.). Alcohol Use and Preventing Alcohol-Related Problems Among Young Adults in the Military. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  5. Woodruff, S.I., Hurtado, S.L., Simon-Arndt, C.M. et al.(2018). An exploratory case study of environmental factors related to military alcohol misuseBMC Public Health 18(902).
  6. Fielden, J. (2012). Review: Management of Adjustment Disorder in the Deployed Setting. Military Medicine 177(9): 1022-1027.
  7. US Department of Veteran Affairs. Mental Health Substance Use.
  8. Military Health System. (2015). Conditions and Treatments: Substance Abuse. 

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