Military Not Doing Its Duty to Curb Alcohol, Drug Abuse

An Institute of Medicine report finds not enough is being done to help soldiers with substance abuse problems.

military, drug abuse, prescription medication, substance abuse, IOM

Binge drinking and prescription painkiller use is growing among service members, and more needs to be done to help them, a report says. (Photo: Tony Karumba/Getty Images) 

Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

Substance abuse has become a complex and serious problem in the military and not enough is being done to address it, a new report says.

In 2008 about half of soldiers in active duty were binge drinkers, compared to about 17 percent of the general population in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of prescriptions for pain medications written by military doctors quadrupled from 2001 to 2009.

Disturbing statistics such as these prompted the Department of Defense to ask the Institute of Medicine to look over the policies and programs the military has in place to deal with substance use disorders. The result is a report the IOM released today.

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Some of those policies, the IOM found, may be outdated. Addiction treatment and recovery today are more difficult due to soldiers being dependent on more than one subtance, so more experienced counselors and therapists are needed.

The report said that despite a military culture that discourages heavy drinking and drug use, “alcohol and other drug use in the armed forces remain unacceptably high, constitute a public health crisis, and both are detrimental to force readiness and psychological fitness.”

Prescription painkiller use is “skyrocketing,” with some linking it to the consequences of combat: injuries incurred from hauling gear and weapons through several deployments.

The report listed a number of things the military could be doing better to curb numbers of addicted soldiers. It recommended routine screenings for alcohol abuse, and training health professionals to spot prescription drug use patterns and medication seekers.

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Cheap alcohol should be harder to get on military bases, and underage drinking laws need to be enforced. The report also mentioned that people should be urged to get help if they have a problem, despite some obstacles currently in the way, such as health insurance, a fear of repercussions and not enough private services.

"The lack of confidentiality of treatment programs is a barrier to accessing care. Treatment levels are below what we'd expect,” Dennis McCarty told U.S. News and World Report. McCarthy, a member of the committee that wrote the report, is a researcher at Oregon Health & Science University.

"We commend the steps that the Department of Defense and individual service branches have recently taken to improve prevention and care for substance use disorders, but the armed forces face many ongoing challenges," Charles P. O'Brien, chairman of the report, said in a news release.

O’Brien, director of the Center for Studies of Addiction at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, added, "Better care for service members and their families is hampered by inadequate prevention strategies, staffing shortages, lack of coverage for services that are proved to work, and stigma associated with these disorders. This report recommends solutions to address each of these concerns."

What else should the military do to help soldiers recover from substance abuse? Let us know in the comments.

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