Illegal substances are often used as a way to self-medicate against the stresses of daily life. For some segments of the population, the stress of daily life is anything but normal. For those who serve in the military, for instance, deployment can introduce extended periods of high risk for physical injury and emotional trauma.
Using drugs as a way to self-medicate for stress associated with combat exposure or the threat of physical or psychological trauma is a common occurrence among members of the military. One often-cited reason that substance use is high among military personnel is the fear of jeopardizing career advancement due to the perceived stigma of mental health issues.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides regular reports about the use of illegal substances among various population groups in the United States. Using the Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS), SAMHSA can provide important information that aids policymakers in designing strategies to develop substance abuse treatment facilities and educational opportunities where it is needed.
The use of substances by military personnel is important to identify because the problem may develop while in active duty, but continue long after service has ended.
The TEDS data does not include information gathered from Veterans Affairs facilities, so the report issued for veterans pertains only to veterans who sought treatment at facilities other than Veterans Affairs hospitals.
The report, which includes data for admissions by veterans between the ages of 21 and 39, focuses on those patients who identified alcohol as their choice substance of abuse. The report includes information for the year 2010.
According to the TEDS data for 2010, there were 17,641 total admissions for veterans between the ages of 21 and 39. The age bracket examined is significant because it represents veterans whose service in the military was relatively recent.
Veterans, more-so than non-veterans, are more likely to indicate that alcohol is their number one substance of abuse, at a rate of 50.7 percent versus 34.4 percent. Veterans were significantly less apt to indicate that heroin was their choice substance of abuse, at a rate of 9.0 versus 16.8 percent.
The high rate of alcohol reported as a primary substance of abuse among this population of veterans that has recently finished their military service provides evidence that there may be a particular need among the group for targeted education and intervention efforts.
There may be a need for additional screenings following deployment or before military discharge that routinely assesses whether there is a need for substance abuse treatment for each member of the military.
Additional information may be necessary to determine whether the high rate of alcohol as a primary substance of abuse is consistent among veterans who seek treatment through Veterans’ Affairs treatment programs.