Substance abuse is a problem in our Armed Forces, just like it is among civilians. Each branch has unique challenges when it comes to addiction and mental health disorders, and the Air Force is no different.
Airmen and Substance Abuse
Like other military personnel, some Airmen may have significant issues relating to substance abuse. Alcohol use is the most-reported substance among active-duty military service members. It accounts for the majority of admissions for veterans seeking substance abuse treatment.1
The use of illegal drugs is relatively low among Airmen, as is the case with other branches of the military. Only around 1% of military service members use illicit drugs, compared to 22% of the general population between the ages of 18 and 25. The low rate of illicit drug use in the military is due to frequent drug testing and severe penalties for using illegal drugs.1
Alcohol Misuse in the Air Force
Military personnel spend more days using alcohol on average than any other profession.2 Airmen might be using alcohol to cope with stress or trauma, and the military culture in general supports drinking.1
Binge drinking is a significant issue in the military, with 1 in 3 service members engaging in binge drinking, as compared to 1 in 4 people in the civilian population.1 Binge drinking is defined as drinking where a person consumes enough alcohol to raise their blood alcohol level to 0.08% or higher.
In general, women reach or exceed this level after 4 drinks in 2 hours, whereas men tend to reach it after 5 drinks in 2 hours. Although binge drinking can lead to legal issues or health issues, most people who binge drink are not physically dependent on alcohol, nor do they necessarily meet the criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder.3
When a person has an alcohol use disorder, they exhibit symptoms that include:4
- Using more alcohol than intended.
- Drinking even when it is hazardous to do so, such as when driving.
- Trying to cut back or quit drinking unsuccessfully many times.
- Using alcohol even when it creates family problems and conflict.
- Giving up pleasurable pursuits to drink.
- Spending a great deal of time looking for alcohol, drinking, and recovering from drinking.
- Drinking to the point that a person cannot function adequately at work or at home.
- Experiencing tolerance, which is a need to drink more alcohol to get the desired effects from it.
- Experiencing physical withdrawal when stopping the use of alcohol.
- Drinking even though it makes a physical or mental health condition worse.
- Experiencing cravings to use alcohol.
If you or an Airmen in your family require substance abuse treatment resources, there are several available through the Air Force Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program and Prevention.
Mental Health Concerns
A growing number of young veterans are experiencing major depression. In addition, serious mental illness is rising among veterans ages 26 to 49.5
Depression rates in veterans have been linked to combat exposure.6 PTSD is frequently discussed as an outcome of military service. Research findings indicate that the type of war, politics around the war, duties during the war, and where it was fought may all contribute to PTSD rates. Vietnam veterans, in particular, have higher rates of PTSD than other veterans.7
Veterans with a serious mental illness such as PTSD are more likely to have a substance abuse disorder than those with no mental illness.5
A New High in Suicide Deaths in the Air Force
Any veteran who is in crisis and in need of help can call the Veteran’s Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.
Unfortunately, suicide rates have risen to an all-time high in the Air Force. Specifically, suicide completions among Airmen rose by 33% in 2019.8 The Air Force is equal to the Navy in terms of overall suicide rates but below that of the Army or Marine Corps.9
There is help for those contemplating suicide:
- Air Force Resilience offers numerous initiatives and programs to help with Airmen in crisis.
- Suicide prevention training is also offered by the Air Force.
Help for Veterans Through American Addiction Centers
The Salute to Recovery program that’s offered at Recovery First in Hollywood, Florida offers a unique treatment program designed to help veterans. Many staff in the program are veterans themselves and therefore have a unique ability to understand and help other veterans in crisis.
Recovery First is a community care provider through the VA, which means that if you would like to seek addiction treatment outside of the VA and you qualify, our facility could be the right fit for you.
Through the use of evidence-based practices, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, veterans receive treatment for substance abuse and mental health disorders in a supportive and understanding environment.
Desert Hope, in Las Vegas, Nevada, also has a Salute to Recovery program.
We have a few more resources for veterans online, including articles about:
- Veteran insurance for addiction treatment.
- Female veteran PTSD and substance abuse information.
- Resources for families and loved ones.
- Community Care Providers for Veterans
- Coast Guard Substance Abuse Trends and Resources
- Substance Abuse in the National Guard & Reserves
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Substance abuse and military life.
- Simkins, J.D. (2019). The military leads all other professions in the number of days spent drinking per year, study claims. Military Times.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Binge drinking.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol use disorder.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). National survey on drug use and health: Veterans.
- Lee, H., Aldwin, C.M., Choun, S., Spiro, A. (2019). Impact of combat exposure on mental health trajectories in later life: Longitudinal findings from the VA Normative Aging Study. Psychology and Aging, 34 (4). 467-474.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2018). How common is PTSD in veterans?
- Air Force Times. (2019). Air Force deaths by suicide spiked by one-third in 2019.
- Myers, M. (2018). Active duty suicides are on the rise, as the Pentagon works on new messaging and strategy. Air Force Times.