Substance Abuse and The Military

Military Culture
Military personnel and those in the armed forces face unique pressures and stress that can have serious implications for their health. Many men and women often enter this cultural group at a relatively young age and may face significant personal and emotional changes as a result. To overcome some of the social anxieties and pressures, military personnel often engage in harmful drinking or other substance abuse patterns as a way to deal with stress, boredom and loneliness.

When a soldier is in active service, they may be exposed to high stress and traumatic events that can trigger coping mechanisms which lead to drug or alcohol abuse. Injuries, both physical and psychological, can also occur during active service which can lead to abuse of prescription medications such as pain killers. Depression and post traumatic stress disorder are commonly reported mental health concerns that soldiers are often at high risk of developing after they return from service.

Alcohol Abuse
Drinking to excess and binge drinking is commonplace in the military and there are many ritualized drinking games and sessions that occur. Individuals who enter this environment are often under pressure to conform to these cultural norms and may engage in dangerous drinking patterns to fit in. Statistics show that young military men between 18 and 25 years of age heavily drink at levels that are greater than their civilian peers.

Alcohol is often used by returned soldiers and those within the service to forget painful memories associated with their service. It is also used to overcome intense anxieties by those who are in active service and may have difficulties in getting motivation to engage in fighting. This presents many serious issues as this impulsivity or decrease of inhibitions can lead to an increase in risk taking. Soldiers who are on active duty may drive vehicles, use weapons recklessly or expose peers to dangerous situations if they are affected by alcohol. This can have disastrous consequences.

Opiate Dependence
One of the more troubling developments is the rise in levels of opiate dependency among military personnel and veterans. This problem is a serious effect of trauma and injury soldiers face as part of their service.

Many individuals are injured seriously in the line of duty and these injuries may need to be treated with strong opiate painkillers such as oxycodone or morphine. These medications are very effective analgesics however they do pose serious risk of addiction and dependence. Many young people who may be prescribed these drugs for a legitimate condition. However, tolerance to the pain-relieving effects occurs quickly. It is when a person takes their prescription into their own hands and begins to increase their dose that dependency occurs and an addiction can easily set in.

As many soldiers in the armed forces from the US and UK have been sent to Afghanistan, there is some concern that an addiction to opiates may have started. Afghanistan is the largest producer of illicit opium which is used to make the street drug, heroin. It is possible that some armed forces personnel may begin taking the drug as a way to cope with the traumatic life of an active soldier in the region.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression
Many people who are in the military or who have returned from military service will suffer the effects of depression or post traumatic stress disorder. These conditions have serious consequences for individuals and those around them and unfortunately they often go undiagnosed. For those in the military or returned veterans, turning to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the sadness and anxieties that they have suffered as part of their service is a very easy and common way to treat their conditions. But this can have even more serious consequences for the individual and family members.

Post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a condition that affects many people, particularly military personnel and returned soldiers. Post traumatic stress disorder sufferers experience flashbacks, intrusive and upsetting memories of events that were physically or psychologically traumatic. A person will feel crippling distress and fear when recalling these events. They will often suffer from panic attacks and nightmares and the stress on their body and mind will take its toll. Individuals with PTSD may find that their lives begin to change. Relationships may break down, they may have problems with their work, they may have chronic insomnia, unhealthy eating habits, minor illnesses and begin to use drugs or alcohol as a way to deal with their PTSD.

Depression is a clinical mood disorder characterized by sadness, unhappiness, anger and frustration that goes beyond normal ranges. A person with depression may be overcome with these feelings and become unable to cope with day to day life, they may cry easily, have dramatic changes to weight, insomnia, fatigue and thoughts of death or suicide. People with depression often have a negative attitude and outlook on their future, and are unable to imagine any way out of the cloud of depression. Depression can occur in response to a particular traumatic event which is often the case for military personnel or returned soldiers. The experiences of their service may be very upsetting and traumatic causing the trigger of a depressive episode. By using drugs or alcohol to dull the memories and sadness, a person can often become dependent on the numbing effect the substance can have which can lead to serious problems.

Treatment is Available
Fortunately, when a person is in the military they have access to extensive medical treatment, which includes drug and alcohol therapy. Taking advantage of these facilities and expertise can save the lives of military personnel who are struggling with substance abuse problems. Treatments can range from intensive detoxification programs to counseling and medical interventions to help a person overcome their addiction and associated health concerns. Individuals should take advantage of the high level of psychotherapy and support services that the armed forces offer to its personnel and get their life back to a healthy and productive one.

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