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Alcohol Abuse Up Twofold Among Returning Vets

Posted in Alcoholism

In the past five years, the number of troops returning home from war zones with alcohol abuse disorders has doubled, according to Army health officials.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Dr. Les McFarling of the Army’s Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) explained that as many as 13,000 soldiers were treated for substance abuse problems in 2010, with all but 1,900 of the patients being treated for alcohol abuse. The remaining cases, McFarling described, were mostly related to such drugs as marijuana and cocaine.

Although studies have not been able to confirm a correlation between soldiers’ risk of substance abuse problems and number of deployments (see Smith et al.), Army officials believe the troops’ recurring cycle of training, serving, returning and readjusting to home life, and redeploying has left an increasingly stressful imprint on soldiers’ mental health, resulting in the growing uptick of alcoholism cases among them. As levels of other mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder have been on the rise for service members, their risk for alcohol abuse has shown a simultaneous increase, as these conditions are often comorbid. Several studies have identified post-traumatic stress disorder to be associated with alcohol abuse, including a recent investigation by Dr. Shelly Wiechelt of University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s School of Social Work which found that most diagnoses of alcohol abuse disorders have post-traumatic stress disorder as an underlying symptom, and vice versa.

In response to this rise of substance abuse problems among the military, the Army recently posted 130 new job openings for substance abuse counselors and psychologists of all specialties to help treat service members’ alcohol use and related problems—a staff increase of 30%. The new counselor positions are intended to be spread across the Army’s military bases around the world to effectively meet this demand. Following a 2010 study, the Army was recommended to increase its current level of 300 counselors to around 560 in order to adequately handle the number of alcohol use cases within the military. With the addition of the new counselor positions, the Army hopes to increase its counseling staff to around 400.

Although the Army has been gradually increasing its staff for successive years, its level of psychologists has persistently waned due to the lack of American professionals in this field. To help speed the hiring process, Army Secretary John McHugh authorized a new directive that will allow independent practitioners to join the Army’s professional pool of counselors, including licensed marriage and family counselors, social workers, and other licensed professional groups, according to the Associated Press. Studies have found that psychologists of various specialties share an equal ability with substance abuse counselors to treat substance-related disorders in the public realm. To mimic this availability of mental health services, the Army is also adding the same types of professional psychologists so its service members have similar access to care as they would in the civilian world. These new positions will be permanent, full-time opportunities within the Department of the Army, with full benefits and salaries ranging from $50,000 to $106,000 annually.

To learn more about the Army’s Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) and its services, visit http://www.acsap.army.mil/sso/pages/index.jsp.