Substance Abuse in the National Guard & Reserves


While being a member of the National Guard and the Reserves is very honorable, national guardsmen and reservists may face challenges, including substance use and mental health concerns. In this article, we will review alcohol use, drug use, and mental health trends within these groups and how to get help when needed.

Alcohol use is especially concerning among service members and veterans, as the occurrence of alcohol use disorders is the highest among all substance use disorders within the US military population.1 In fact, an estimated 80.2% of veterans who have a substance use disorder struggle with alcohol use.2 Military culture and stress associated with being in the military may contribute to unhealthy drinking patterns and such patterns might persist beyond military service.1

While the information described above pertains to service members and veterans in general, there are important patterns of use that are unique to those service members in the National Guard and the Reserves. For example, research suggests that national guardsmen and reservists are at greater risk for substance use and mental health disorders than active-duty military members.3 In fact, alcohol use may be as high as 74.0% among reservists.3

National Guardsmen getting ready for deploymentSeveral factors may contribute to this, including feelings of guilt, feeling as though they are less valued, struggling to connect with other service members, and secondary trauma.3 Furthermore, research suggests that the more negativity a military member experiences regarding their non-deployment, the more at risk they are for increased alcohol use.3

Binge drinking is a major concern among service members and veterans as well. Binge drinking is excessive drinking that results in a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or higher.4 This usually happens after men drink 5 or more alcoholic beverages within 2 hours and when women drink 4 or more drinks within that same period.4 Although binge drinking may be a sign of an alcohol use disorder (AUD), someone who engages in binge drinking does not necessarily have an AUD.4

Some signs of AUD include:5

  • Drinking more than intended.
  • Wanting to cut down on use but not being able to do so.
  • Having cravings.
  • Spending many resources (i.e. time, money, energy) on obtaining and consuming alcohol.
  • Continuing to use despite issues such as relationship problems, financial strain, or legal issues.

The use of other substances among service members and veterans, including guardsmen and reservists, is a major concern as well.

Some other substances that are of concern within the military population are tobacco, marijuana, heroin, and cocaine.1 It seems as though the rates of military members struggling with the use of such substances are increasing over time, and that these rates may even be underreported because of service members and veterans not feeling comfortable sharing about their struggles with substance use.1

Some signs of a substance use disorder include:6

  • Irritability.
  • Continuing to use despite serious consequences related to use (i.e. relationship problems, financial issues, legal problems).
  • Changes in weight and appetite.
  • Mood swings.
  • Changes in motivation.
  • Changes in sleep patterns.
  • Paranoia.
  • Spending many resources (i.e. time, money, energy) obtaining and using the substance.

If you or a loved one exhibits any of the signs described above, please know that there are resources available to help.

Substance Abuse Resources

Inpatient and outpatient services that assist with recovery from alcohol and other substance use disorders are offered through the VA and community providers.7 Online screening assessments are available and this may be a good place to start.7

Behavioral Health in the Reserves

Stress, trauma, military culture, and difficulty transitioning back to civilian life can lead to mental health concerns for service members and veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety.8 These issues can contribute to alcohol and other substance use, which can become an unhealthy pattern that persists beyond military experience.1

Furthermore, when someone experiences both a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder, this is called a co-occurring disorder, which is another concern within the military population.9

National Guard Suicides are High

The Veterans Crisis Line can be reached at 1-800-273-8255, and via chat online or text (message 838255).

Due to the mental health and substance use concerns described above, suicide is a concern within the military population as well. Furthermore, it has been found that the National Guard has the highest rate of suicides of all the military branches, so this is especially concerning for guardsmen.10 If you or someone you know is having thoughts of self-harm and/or suicide, please reach out for help.

Help for Veterans Through American Addiction Centers

The Salute to Recovery program offered at Recovery First Treatment Center in Florida provides specialized services for veterans, including detoxification, individual therapy, group therapy, testing, relapse prevention, and skills work.

Desert Hope Treatment Center is another addiction center owned by American Addiction Centers that also offers Salute to Recovery for veterans. This program offers similar services as well, such as individual therapy, family therapy, coping skills, communication skills, and tools for balancing work/life balance.

Resources

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Substance use and military life: General risk of substance use disorders.
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). 2018 National Survey on drug use and health: Veterans.
  3. Hoopsick, R.A., Homish, D.L., Vest, B.M., & Homish, G.G. (2018). Alcohol use among never-deployed U.S. Army Reserves and National Guard soldiers: The effects of non-deployment emotions and sex. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 42(12), 2413-2422.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Binge drinking.
  5. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol use disorder.
  6. S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2019). Mental health and substance use disorders.
  7. S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). Mental health.
  8. S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). VA research on mental health.
  9. National Center for PTSD. For veterans and families: Understanding PTSD and substance use.
  10. Smith, E.B. (2019). National Guard initiatives to address suicide.


About The Contributor

Laura Close
Laura Close

Senior Web Content Editor, American Addiction Centers

Laura Close is a Senior Web Content Editor at American Addiction Centers and an addiction content expert at Recovery First Treatment Center. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and has nearly a decade in professional editing experience... Read More


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