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Substance Abuse in the Navy

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Last Updated - 06/21/2024

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Key Takeaways

  • Substance misuse in the Navy includes misuse of alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs, with alcohol being the primary concern.
  • Risk factors for substance misuse in Navy personnel include stress, deployment, peer influence, and combat exposure.
  • Substance misuse impacts Navy operations by compromising readiness, increasing healthcare costs, and affecting retention rates.
  • The Navy’s Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program (SARP) offers various levels of treatment and support for personnel.
  • The success of Navy substance misuse programs is indicated by reduced substance-related incidents and improved retention.
  • Challenges to Navy substance misuse programs include stigma and the need for program adaptation to emerging trends.
  • Continuous improvement of programs is essential, including addressing co-occurring mental health issues and reducing barriers to treatment.

Substance Abuse Trends in the US Navy

The US Navy, like other branches of the military, faces challenges with substance misuse among its personnel. Substance abuse within the US Navy mirrors some of the challenges faced by the civilian population, with certain substances being more prevalent due to the unique stressors of military life.

Commonly Abused Substances in the US Navy

The most commonly misused substances in the US Navy include the following:

  • Alcohol: Alcohol misuse remains the primary concern, as indicated by the 2015 Department of Defense Health Related Behaviors Survey (HRBS), which reported high rates of binge and heavy drinking among service members. This behavior often correlates with adverse outcomes and is costly for the Department of Defense.
  • Prescription drugs: Prescription drug misuse, particularly opioids, is another area of concern. The HRBS revealed that just over 4% of active-duty service members reported misusing prescription drugs in the past year. The trend of prescribing pain medication has been under scrutiny, with military physicians writing a significantly higher number of prescriptions for pain medication in 2009 compared to 2001. However, recent self-reported use of prescription opioids and sedatives has seen a decrease.
  • Tobacco: Tobacco use, including smoking and smokeless tobacco, is also prevalent in the military. Although a 2015 report indicated a decrease in tobacco use within the military compared to 2011, it also showed that close to 40% of those who smoke started smoking after enlisting. This highlights the need for targeted prevention strategies for new recruits. The HRBS from 2015 showed that nearly 14% of service members were current cigarette smokers, with deployment and combat exposure being risk factors for smoking initiation. The Department of Defense implemented smoking cessation programs and aimed for tobacco-free installations by 2020 to address this issue. Veterans, in particular, exhibit higher rates of tobacco use compared to non-veterans, with close to 30% reporting use, and this has significant financial implications for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).

It is important to note that mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety, which are common among Navy personnel, often co-occur with substance use disorders, further complicating the treatment and recovery process.

Factors Contributing to Substance Abuse Among Navy Personnel

Substance misuse within the US Navy is a multifaceted issue influenced by various factors. There are several significant contributors to substance use disorders (SUDs) among Navy personnel: 

  • A high-stress environment: The high-stress environment of military life, particularly during deployments and combat, can lead to the initiation of substance use as a coping mechanism. A study has shown that the prevalence of tobacco use and binge drinking is higher among Navy personnel, with many starting to use these substances after enlisting.
  • Peer influence and Navy culture: Additionally, the culture within the Navy, which may include normalized binge drinking, can influence substance use behaviors. A report highlights that the Navy ranks second among military branches in rates of binge drinking. It is crucial for prevention strategies to target new active-duty personnel to mitigate the initiation of substance use. 
  • Mental health issues: The high stress of the Navy environment can aggravate mental health issues like PTSD, depression, or anxiety. Additionally, the stigma surrounding mental health treatment within the military community can deter individuals from seeking help, further contributing to substance misuse.
  • Reintegration into civilian life: The reintegration challenges faced by veterans when returning to civilian life can also exacerbate mental health issues, which may increase the risk of developing SUDs. Veterans with co-occurring disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety are particularly vulnerable.

To effectively combat substance misuse in the Navy, it is imperative to address these contributing factors through comprehensive and tailored prevention and intervention programs.

Risks and Consequences of Substance Abuse in Naval Operations

Substance misuse within the US Navy significantly challenges personnel health, performance, and overall naval operations. As highlighted by Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Lisa Franchetti, the readiness of the force is compromised by drug and alcohol-related issues, which can also affect retention rates in an environment where maintaining skilled personnel is critical. The Health of the Force Report underscores the negative impact that substance misuse has on naval readiness and the importance of a proactive approach to mitigate these effects.

Health Risks of Substance Abuse Among Navy Personnel

Substance misuse poses significant health risks to Navy personnel, impacting both their physical and mental well-being. The use of illicit drugs, alcohol, and prescription medication misuse can lead to a range of health problems that may compromise an individual’s fitness for duty and overall health. These serious health risks and problems include:

  • Physical Health Risks: Substance misuse can lead to acute medical emergencies, including overdose, and contribute to the development of long-term conditions like hypertension, liver cirrhosis, and various forms of cancer. It can also result in chronic health issues such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory distress, and neurological impairment.
  • Mental Health Concerns: The psychological impact of substance misuse can exacerbate stress-related conditions and impair cognitive functions, affecting decision-making and increasing the likelihood of risky behaviors. The long-term mental health implications are severe, with increased risks of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which are often prevalent in military populations.
  • Addiction and Dependence: Navy personnel may develop substance dependence that can lead to addiction, a chronic disease that requires comprehensive treatment and support to overcome.
  • Impact on Readiness: The health implications of substance misuse directly affect the readiness and performance of Navy personnel, potentially leading to decreased operational effectiveness and increased risk of accidents or injuries.

Addressing these health risks is critical for maintaining the Navy’s operational integrity and its service members’ safety. It is essential to provide adequate support, including education, prevention programs, and access to treatment for those affected by substance misuse.

Operational Impact of Substance Abuse in the US Navy

Substance misuse within the US Navy has far-reaching implications that extend beyond individual health concerns, affecting the operational readiness and efficiency of the entire fleet. The Navy’s stringent policies, including the “zero tolerance” approach to drug use, underscore the critical importance of maintaining a force that is both mentally and physically prepared to meet the demands of military service. Substance misuse can lead to a degradation of mission effectiveness, compromised safety, and a decline in the quality of life for service members.

Stress and burnout, often cited as contributing factors to substance misuse, can result in decreased morale and trust within the ranks, potentially undermining the cohesive unit structure essential for successful naval operations. The Navy Drug and Alcohol Deterrence programs emphasize the need for a healthy and resilient Navy community to support operational needs, particularly in light of current recruiting challenges.

When service members turn to substances as a coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, or PTSD, it not only affects their personal health but also has the potential to disrupt the operational effectiveness of their units. This can manifest in 

  • reduced combat readiness, 
  • increased absenteeism, and 
  • higher rates of accidents and injuries. 

Furthermore, the stigma associated with seeking help for substance misuse can deter sailors from accessing the necessary treatment, exacerbating the issue and hindering the Navy’s efforts to maintain a ready and capable force.

Ultimately, the operational consequences of substance misuse in the Navy are multifaceted and can jeopardize the overarching goal of maintaining a combat-effective force. The Navy needs to continue to promote a culture of support and resilience, where sailors feel empowered to seek help without fear of stigma, ensuring the health of the force and the effectiveness of naval operations.

The US Navy’s Approach to Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment

The Navy’s approach to addressing substance misuse involves comprehensive prevention and control policies, as well as treatment and rehabilitation programs. These efforts aim to maintain combat effectiveness and ensure the Navy can fulfill its mission of securing global maritime dominance. The introduction of evidence-based practices for treating substance use disorders, particularly those co-occurring with PTSD, is a step towards improving the mental health and operational capability of Navy personnel.

Navy Substance Abuse Prevention Strategies

The US Navy has implemented a comprehensive approach to combat substance misuse among its ranks. The OPNAV Instruction 5350.4E serves as the current guiding policy for drug and alcohol deterrence within the Navy. This instruction outlines the framework for education, detection, and deterrence strategies to maintain a safe and resilient Navy community.

Central to these efforts is the Navy Drug and Alcohol Counselor School (NDACS), which provides rigorous training for enlisted personnel who are selected through a thorough screening process. The school equips them with the competencies required to support their peers in overcoming substance-related challenges.

Furthermore, the Navy’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention (NADAP) program has primary objectives that include promoting readiness and health by preventing substance misuse. The program offers various resources, including live chats, crisis intervention, and connections to advocates, as outlined by Military OneSource.

Another initiative, the Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation Program (SARP), focuses on prevention and treatment, ensuring that Navy personnel have access to the necessary support to maintain their health and readiness. The program’s reach is extended through partnerships with leaders to change policies and implement prevention activities as part of the Navy’s Culture of Excellence (COE) 2.0, detailed on the Integrated Primary Prevention website.

These structured programs and policies demonstrate the Navy’s commitment to proactively addressing substance misuse, focusing on prevention, education, and support for its personnel.

Navy Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Programs

The US Navy addresses substance misuse issues among its personnel through a comprehensive Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program (SARP). SARP’s primary objectives include promoting readiness, health, and wellness by preventing and treating substance misuse. The program offers a range of services tailored to individual needs, from early intervention to more intensive rehabilitative care. SARP services include screening, preventive measures, and dual diagnosis rehabilitative services for substance misuse and dependence.

The program’s key components encompass various treatment levels, including 

  • Level 0.5: Prime for Life, 
  • Level 1: Outpatient Treatment, 
  • Level 2: Intensive Outpatient, and 
  • Level 3: Dual Diagnosis Residential treatment. 
  • Aftercare, known as Continuing Care, is also provided to support Navy personnel in maintaining sobriety post-treatment. 

The Navy also offers specialized training for leaders through the Alcohol and Drug Abuse for Managers/Supervisors (ADAMS) course, which is available on Navy e-Learning. This training is designed to equip leaders with the knowledge to support their subordinates in dealing with substance-related issues.

Moreover, the Navy Alcohol & Drug Abuse Prevention program provides additional support, including live chats, crisis responders, and advocates to assist individuals in need. For more severe cases, the Navy Drug and Alcohol Counselor School trains personnel to offer expert counseling and support to their peers. These initiatives underscore the Navy’s commitment to its service members’ health and operational readiness by addressing substance misuse proactively and with a wide array of resources.

Evaluating the Effectiveness of Substance Abuse Programs in the US Navy

The effectiveness of the Navy’s various substance abuse programs can be measured by examining success rates and identifying areas that require improvement. Key indicators of success include reduced incidence of substance misuse, improved health outcomes for participants, and enhanced operational readiness. 

Positive Outcomes of Navy’s Substance Abuse Programs

The US Navy’s commitment to addressing substance misuse within its ranks has yielded positive outcomes, as evidenced by several success stories and program data. The Navy’s Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program (SARP), for instance, has been a cornerstone in providing treatment and support to personnel struggling with addiction. Through comprehensive care that includes medical treatment, counseling, and aftercare planning, individuals have been able to regain control of their lives and maintain sobriety.

Success stories often feature Navy members who return to duty after completing the program with a renewed sense of purpose and improved performance. These narratives not only highlight personal triumphs but also underscore the program’s role in enhancing the readiness and effectiveness of naval forces. Quantitative measures of success include reduced rates of substance-related incidents and improved retention of skilled sailors.

Moreover, the Navy’s proactive approach in offering educational resources and early intervention has helped in preventing substance misuse before it escalates into addiction. This preventive strategy has contributed to a culture shift within the Navy, promoting a healthier, more resilient force.

While individual success stories are not typically published due to privacy concerns, the overall effectiveness of the Navy’s substance misuse programs can be inferred from the decline in substance use trends and the positive feedback from program participants.

Identifying and Addressing Challenges in Navy Substance Abuse Programs

The US Navy’s substance misuse programs face several challenges that can hinder their effectiveness:

  • The stigma with seeking help
    A critical issue is the stigma associated with seeking help for substance misuse, which can prevent Navy personnel from accessing the support they need. 
  • Availability of treatment programs
    Additionally, there are operational barriers, such as the availability and distribution of Opioid Treatment Programs (OTPs) across different regions, which can affect access to quality care, particularly in rural areas. The stringent treatment requirements of these programs, often referred to as “liquid handcuffs,” can negatively impact the lives of those in treatment by requiring daily travel or conflicting with other responsibilities.
  • Mental health issues
    Another challenge is the prevalence of mental health issues such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety among Navy personnel, which are often co-occurring with substance use disorders. The Navy’s programs must continue to address these co-occurring disorders comprehensively. High-ranking officers openly discussing mental health can help reduce the stigma and encourage more personnel to seek treatment without fear of negative career consequences.
  • Challenges of diversity
    Areas for improvement include enhancing the cultural and linguistic appropriateness of services, investing in a diverse workforce, and providing ongoing provider training to meet the needs of a diverse Navy population. 
  • Outdated policies
    Furthermore, updating and adapting Navy policies to reflect current best practices in substance misuse prevention and treatment can improve program effectiveness. This could involve revising OPNAV Instruction 5350.4E to align with contemporary standards of care and reducing punitive measures that may deter individuals from seeking help.

Lastly, expanding access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and ensuring that all forms of MAT are available within the Navy’s treatment facilities can greatly increase the success rates of substance misuse programs. The Navy must continue to work towards removing barriers to treatment and fostering an environment where seeking help is seen as a sign of strength and a step towards readiness and health.

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