Substance Abuse in the Navy

Last Updated: March 5, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Key Takeaways

  • Substance use in the Navy reflects military stresses and societal challenges, with targeted prevention needed for new recruits.
  • Alcohol use is significant among Navy personnel, with 65% of veterans in treatment citing it as their primary substance of misuse.
  • Deployment and combat exposure are key risk factors for substance use disorders, often co-occurring with mental health conditions like PTSD.
  • Prescription drug misuse has declined, but over-prescription of pain medications to injured service members remains a concern.
  • Substance use impacts operational readiness, leading to decreased performance and compromised morale.
  • Mental health issues like PTSD and depression frequently co-occur with substance use, complicating treatment and recovery.
  • The Navy has established comprehensive policies and programs for substance use prevention, detection, and treatment.
  • Education, deterrence, and rehabilitation are key components of the Navy’s approach to addressing substance use.
  • Treatment programs for Navy personnel focus on evidence-based therapies and holistic recovery approaches.
  • Future directions for Navy substance use programs include integrating evidence-based practices and enhancing telehealth services.

Current Trends in Substance Abuse Among Navy Personnel

The prevalence of substance use within the Navy reflects both the stresses of military life and the broader societal challenges of managing addiction and mental health. 

Substance Abuse Types in the Navy

Substance use in the Navy encompasses a range of substances, which include alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, and illicit substances. Alcohol use is particularly notable, with a 2017 study revealing that 56.6% of veterans reported alcohol use in a one-month period, and 7.5% engaged in heavy alcohol use. Alarmingly, 65% of veterans entering treatment programs cite alcohol as their primary substance of misuse. Tobacco use is also prevalent, with close to 30% of veterans reporting tobacco use and a significant number of service personnel initiating smoking post-enlistment.

Prescription drug misuse is another concern, with service members facing an increased risk of developing substance use disorders (SUDs) due to the high amounts of pain medication prescriptions, particularly during transitions to medical discharge. The misuse of prescription opioids and sedatives has been noted, although recent reports suggest a decrease in self-reported use among active-duty personnel.

Illicit drug use within the Navy is subject to a zero-tolerance policy, resulting in relatively low levels of reported use. However, the significant stressors associated with military life, such as deployment and combat exposure, have been linked to an increased risk of SUDs. The co-occurrence of mental health disorders like PTSD, depression, and anxiety with SUDs is common among veterans, further complicating the substance use landscape within the Navy.

The substances most commonly misused by Navy personnel reflect the broader challenges military members face, including the need for effective prevention strategies, robust treatment programs, and ongoing research to better understand and address these issues.

Substance Abuse Demographics Within Navy Personnel

Substance use among Navy personnel is influenced by a complex interplay of demographic factors. Research indicates that young males are more susceptible to substance use disorders (SUDs), with deployment playing a significant role in the likelihood of developing these issues. A meta-analysis of risk factors for substance use in the US military highlighted that demographics such as age and gender are critical indicators of substance use levels among military personnel.

Deployment, particularly to combat zones, increases the risk of SUDs. Individuals deployed to recent conflicts have shown significantly higher rates of SUD diagnoses than their non-deployed counterparts. The transition back to civilian life also presents challenges, with veterans facing unique mental health challenges that can lead to increased substance use. For example, veterans are more likely to use alcohol and tobacco products than their non-veteran counterparts, with a notable percentage starting to smoke after enlisting.

Rank and career stage also influence substance use patterns. Enlisted sailors have reported high levels of stress, which may contribute to substance use as a coping mechanism. The Navy’s own surveys and reports, such as the Health of the Force survey, provide valuable insights into how stress and other service-related factors contribute to substance use trends within this population.

Overall, the demographics of substance use in the Navy reflect a combination of individual, environmental, and occupational factors that contribute to the risk and prevalence of SUDs among sailors and veterans alike.

Operational Impacts of Substance Abuse in the Navy

The operational readiness of the Navy is significantly impacted by substance use among its personnel. Substance use can lead to decreased performance, compromised morale, and disciplinary issues, affecting the Navy’s ability to execute its missions effectively. The prevalence of substance use, including the misuse of alcohol, prescription drugs, and illicit substances, poses a threat to the safety and well-being of sailors, potentially leading to injuries, chronic diseases, and reduced fitness for duty.

Substance use can result in administrative separations and the need for extended leave for treatment, which disrupts staffing and undermines unit cohesion. Additionally, the stress and burnout associated with naval service, particularly among those deployed, increase the risk of substance use disorders (SUDs). Increased rates of SUDs have been observed in personnel returning from combat deployments, with a significant number facing challenges in transitioning back to civilian life, including the onset of problematic substance use behaviors.

Moreover, the Navy’s operational capability is further challenged by the need to manage substance use prevention and treatment programs. The implementation of policies and programs such as drug testing, disciplinary actions, and rehabilitation initiatives is crucial to maintaining a ready and effective force. As the Navy combats the rise in drug overdoses, particularly from substances like fentanyl, it is also mandated to track overdose incidents and provide access to lifesaving antidotes, reflecting the urgency of addressing substance use as a matter of national security.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Challenges in the Navy

The interrelationship between substance use and mental health issues is a significant concern in the US Navy, affecting both active service members and veterans. Mental health conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression frequently co-occur with substance use, complicating treatment and recovery. Research indicates that traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), often resulting from blast incidents, are associated with a heightened risk of PTSD and other severe mental health consequences. These conditions can be exacerbated by substance use, which may be used as a coping mechanism for stress and trauma experienced during service.

Statistics reveal that a substantial portion of military personnel develop mental health disorders, with approximately 20% of active duty members diagnosed with at least one mental health condition. The prevalence of mental health issues not only impacts force health and readiness but also contributes to morbidity and attrition within the military ranks. Notably, female service members have been diagnosed with certain mental health disorders at higher rates than their male counterparts, highlighting the need for gender-specific support strategies.

Emerging treatments, including clinical trials for psychedelic therapies, show promise for improving mental health outcomes for those struggling with these challenges. The US government has acknowledged the potential of such treatments, as evidenced by the submission of a New Drug Application for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD treatment. However, stigmas surrounding mental health disorders in the military persist, often serving as barriers to treatment for service members returning from combat. Efforts to reduce these stigmas and enhance access to mental health services are crucial for the well-being of Navy personnel.

The Navy must continue developing comprehensive strategies that address both substance use and mental health issues, ensuring that service members receive the support they need for their physical and psychological health.

Physical Health Consequences of Substance Abuse in Navy Personnel

Substance use poses significant risks to the physical health of Navy personnel, impacting their fitness for duty and overall well-being. Chronic use of substances such as alcohol, prescription drugs, illicit drugs like cocaine and opioids, and even marijuana can lead to a range of detrimental health effects. These effects may include long-term damage to vital organs, increased risk of injuries, and the exacerbation of chronic diseases. Alcohol misuse, for instance, can lead to liver and heart damage, while stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine can cause cardiovascular issues and severe dental problems.

Opioid misuse is linked to adverse effects on multiple organ systems, and chronic marijuana use may result in cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, characterized by severe nausea and vomiting. It’s important to note that while some health consequences may improve with treatment and sustained abstinence, others may have lasting impacts. For example, abstinence from alcohol can lead to recovery of the liver and brain function, but some gastrointestinal problems may be irreversible.

Understanding these physical health consequences is crucial for the Navy’s operational readiness. Ensuring the fitness and well-being of personnel is essential for maintaining discipline and morale within the ranks. The Navy’s approach to addressing substance use includes prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation programs to mitigate these health risks and preserve the operational capabilities of its forces.

Navy Substance Abuse Policies and Programs

The US Navy has established comprehensive policies and programs to prevent and address substance use among its personnel. These initiatives are designed to ensure operational readiness, promote health and wellness, and maintain discipline within the ranks. The Navy’s approach to substance use encompasses education, deterrence, detection, and treatment.

  • Education and Prevention: The Navy emphasizes the importance of educating its personnel on the risks associated with substance use. Programs such as the Alcohol and Drug Abuse for Managers/Supervisors (ADAMS) for Leaders are available through Navy e-Learning, offering guidance on substance use prevention.
  • Deterrence and Detection: To deter substance use, the Navy conducts random urinalysis testing and has clear policies against the misuse of substances, including alcohol. The Navy Drug and Alcohol Deterrence Program outlines procedures for screening and maintaining data on related activities.
  • Disciplinary Actions: Navy personnel found to be in violation of substance use policies may face disciplinary actions, which can include administrative separation or other consequences as outlined by the Navy’s regulations.
  • Treatment and Rehabilitation: The Navy’s Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation Program (SARP) aims to provide treatment and promote recovery for service members struggling with substance use issues. The primary objectives of SARP are to restore health and readiness through effective treatment strategies.

Overall, the Navy’s policies on substance use are structured to uphold the highest standards of conduct and fitness for duty while providing support for those in need of help to overcome substance-related challenges.

Navy Substance Abuse Prevention Programs

The US Navy has instituted several prevention programs to curb substance use among its personnel. A key initiative is the OPNAV Instruction 5350.4E, which serves as the current guiding policy for the Navy’s drug and alcohol deterrence efforts. This comprehensive instruction outlines the Navy’s approach to prevention, including education, training, and support services.

Another significant program is the Navy Drug and Alcohol Counselor School (NDACS), which provides specialized training for enlisted personnel to become adept in substance use counseling. Rigorous screening processes are in place to ensure that only eligible candidates who can handle the demands of the course are admitted, as detailed on the Navy Medicine website.

The Navy Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention (NADAP) office focuses on promoting readiness and wellness through the prevention and treatment of substance misuse. Information on accessing these benefits can be found on Military OneSource. Furthermore, the Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation Program (SARP) offers a range of services, from preventive education to intensive outpatient and residential treatment, as described on the TRICARE website.

The Navy also implements the Drug Education for Youth (DEFY) program, which is based on best practices from the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP). DEFY aims to educate young people about the dangers of drug use and is periodically updated to maintain relevance, as noted on the MyNavyHR website.

Substance Abuse Treatment and Rehabilitation in the Navy

Treatment and rehabilitation programs for Navy personnel who struggle with substance use are essential components of military healthcare. These programs are designed to address the unique needs of service members, providing support for a successful recovery and return to duty. The Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation Act establishes the foundation for grants and contracts that demonstrate new and more effective prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation methods.

Residential treatment is a critical aspect of substance use programs, integrating therapeutic approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and family or couples counseling. Research from The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) shows that these evidence-based treatments are effective in achieving long-term recovery. NIDA emphasizes the importance of treatment duration and continuity of care across different facilities to ensure the best recovery outcomes.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) outlines four major dimensions of recovery: health, home, purpose, and community. These dimensions are crucial for a holistic approach to treatment, ensuring that individuals not only overcome substance use but also improve their overall well-being and reintegrate into society effectively.

For Navy personnel, accessing treatment programs that cater to their specific needs can be life-changing. These programs offer a range of services, including detoxification, behavioral therapy, and aftercare planning, all aimed at fostering resilience and promoting a drug-free lifestyle. The combination of medical treatment, support systems, and a focus on the individual’s environment contributes to the effectiveness of these rehabilitation programs.

The Future of Navy Substance Abuse Programs

The United States Navy, like any large organization, faces significant challenges in mitigating substance use among its ranks. Recent reports and research highlight the complexity of substance use disorders (SUDs) within military populations, exacerbated by factors such as deployment, combat exposure, and the stress of reintegration into civilian life. The Navy’s efforts to address these issues include education, prevention, and treatment initiatives, yet challenges persist in reducing the stigma associated with seeking help and ensuring access to comprehensive care.

One of the primary challenges is the cultural and environmental stressors unique to military service that can increase the risk of SUDs. These include the prevalence of PTSD, the necessity for pain management due to injuries, and the pressures of military life. To combat these issues, the Navy has implemented programs like the Navy Drug and Alcohol Deterrence (NDAD) and Alcohol and Drug Abuse for Managers/Supervisors (ADAMS) for Leaders, which focus on education and leadership involvement in prevention efforts.

Future strategies to improve substance use programs in the Navy may involve integrating evidence-based practices that address co-occurring conditions such as PTSD and SUDs, enhancing the use of telehealth services for wider accessibility, and developing targeted prevention strategies for new active-duty personnel. Additionally, fostering an environment that reduces stigma and encourages self-referral can facilitate early intervention and treatment. Continuous assessment and adaptation of these programs are vital to meet the evolving needs of Navy personnel and maintain operational readiness.

Substance Abuse Treatment for Veterans at The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper

If you’re a military veteran seeking addiction treatment, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is here to help. We are a part of the VA Community Care Network, and we offer a trauma-informed program designed for veterans and first responders. Contact a Veteran Advocate today to learn more or to get started with treatment. 

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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