Substance Use Disorders In The United States Military

Reports from the DOD indicate that drug use disorders are a pressing concern in the military. Addressing these challenges involves implementing comprehensive prevention strategies, increasing access to mental health services, and reducing stigma around seeking help.

Drug use disorders in the United States military pose a significant challenge for many service members and their families.

Service members may encounter substance abuse issues due to the demanding nature of military service, exposure to combat situations, and the stress associated with deployments.

Substance Use Rates In The United States Military

According to surveys, members of the Armed Forces surpassed all other professions in the number of days per year that included drinking.

Service members reported consuming alcohol on 130 days annually, compared to the average of 91 days in other professions.

Furthermore, this issue is on the rise. Service members have reported drinking an average of 34 more days per year on average since 2016.

The Department of Defense (DOD) reports that nearly 30 percent of service members engage in binge drinking, and almost 35 percent meet criteria for hazardous or disordered drinking.

Factors That Increase Substance Abuse Rates In The Military

Several factors contribute to increased substance abuse rates in the military, including combat exposure, high stress levels, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Combat Exposure

Exposure to combat situations and the stress of deployment can lead to trauma and mental health challenges, increasing the risk of substance abuse as a coping mechanism.

High Stress Levels

The military environment is inherently stressful with demanding responsibilities, tight schedules, and the pressure to perform. High stress levels can drive individuals to use substances.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Military personnel may develop PTSD due to traumatic experiences. PTSD is associated with a higher likelihood of turning to substances to manage symptoms.

Easy Access To Alcohol

Military culture has historically tolerated heavy drinking, and access to alcohol is prevalent on bases. This environment can contribute to a culture where alcohol consumption is normalized.

Prescription Medications

Injuries sustained during service can lead to the prescription of pain medications. The accessibility of these medications can increase the risk of misuse and dependence.

Stigma Surrounding Mental Health

Stigma surrounding mental health issues in the military may discourage individuals from seeking professional help, leading some to self-medicate with substances.

Transition Challenges

The transition from military to civilian life poses challenges, including job insecurity and difficulties adapting to a new lifestyle, contributing to stress and substance abuse.

The Most Commonly Abused Substances In The U.S. Military

Illicit Drugs

Among active duty members, reports show that illicit drug use in the past year was less than one percent across all service branches, and among both enlisted personnel and officers.

However, it should be noted that this survey was self-reported and may underestimate the total number.
Reported rates of illicit drug use increase when active duty personnel leave military service.

Opioid And Other Prescription Drugs

Among active-duty service members, around four percent reported misusing one or more prescription drugs in the past year. Opioids were the most commonly misused drug.

Opioid use disorder among military personnel often begins with an opioid pain prescription following an injury during deployment. This can then lead to reliance and addiction.

Additionally, veterans often have issues related to pain management, with two-thirds reporting they experience pain and over nine percent reporting severe pain.

In line with these numbers, the overall opioid overdose rates of veterans increased to 21 percent in 2016 from 14 percent in 2010. These increases were mostly from heroin and synthetic opioids.


Alcohol is the most common substance abused in the military.

According to surveys, 30 percent of military members regularly engage in binge drinking, compared to only 24 percent of the general population.

Similarly, 65 percent of veterans who enter a treatment program report alcohol as the substance they most frequently misuse, which is almost double that of the general population.

The high stress of military roles combined with easy access to alcohol contributes to these numbers.

Warning Signs Of Substance Abuse

Identifying warning signs of substance abuse in military members is important to provide timely intervention and support.

Common warning signs of substance abuse include:

  • noticeable changes in behavior, such as increased secrecy
  • physical signs like bloodshot eyes
  • declining job performance, absenteeism, or disciplinary problems
  • mood swings, irritability, or changes in emotional well-being
  • financial difficulties
  • unexplained disappearances
  • engaging in risky behaviors
  • social isolation and neglect of personal responsibilities
  • changes in sleep patterns, such as insomnia or oversleeping
  • neglect of personal hygiene and grooming
  • loss of interest in hobbies or activities
  • sudden changes in social circles
  • defensiveness about substance use when confronted
  • legal issues related to substance abuse, such as arrests or citations
  • physical symptoms of withdrawal when not using the substance
  • continued substance use despite negative consequences

It’s essential for family, fellow service members, commanders, and healthcare professionals to be vigilant, recognizing these signs and facilitating appropriate interventions when needed.

Early identification can significantly improve outcomes for people with substance use disorder and contribute to the overall well-being of military personnel.

Culturally Competent Addiction Treatment For Military Personnel

Culturally competent addiction treatment for military personnel involves understanding and addressing the unique challenges and experiences associated with military service.

This resilience-focused approach recognizes the impact of military culture, combat exposure, and the stressors inherent in the armed forces on substance use issues.

Treatment providers should be familiar with military culture, values, and traditions. Understanding the structure of the military is crucial for establishing rapport.

Similarly, culturally competent treatment involves reducing stigma, fostering an environment of understanding, and emphasizing the importance of seeking help.

By integrating these elements, culturally competent addiction treatment can enhance the effectiveness of interventions, ultimately supporting those who have served in the armed forces.

Talk To Us About Starting Addiction Treatment At Spring Hill

If you or a loved one is experiencing addiction related to your service in the military, treatment can help. Contact Spring Hill today to learn more.

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA),four%20in%20the%20general%20population.&text=More%20than%20one%20in%20three,higher%20among%20men%20than%20women.
  3. National Library of Medicine: PubMed

Written by Spring Hill Recovery Editorial Team

Published on: January 29, 2024

© 2024 Spring Hill Recovery | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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