Although alcohol abuse and addiction are still rampant issues in our culture, there has been a steady decrease in alcohol consumption in recent years. One demographic is going against the grain, however, by spending more days drinking every year. Military service members were found in a recent study to spend an average of one-third of the days of the year drinking alcohol, compared with the rest of the adult population’s average of less than one-fourth. While military members have always had a reputation for drinking, the climbing rate of consumption over the last decade has many problematic implications. Getting a handle on the drinking culture in the military, as well as providing quality mental health resources, is necessary for preventing many common negative outcomes of alcohol abuse, including a lifelong battle with addiction.
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A History of Military Drinking Culture
Alcohol plays a prominent role in military culture, and this can be said for every branch of service. Alcohol has long been tied to ideas of masculinity and power, and there is a history of service members being pressured to keep up with the alcohol consumption of their peers and superiors. Alcohol is also normalized as a coping mechanisms to deal with stress and unpleasant emotions in the military, and service members often gather together after work or in between high-stress duties to drink heavily. There are a wide range of professions available in the military, but for those that find themselves in war zones and far away from home for long periods of time, alcohol is even more likely to be used as an emotional crutch.
Drinking in the military also stems from the “work hard, play hard” mentality. Military life is stressful and often unpredictable. Sailors in the navy, for example, might not receive much notice before deployment, and may only stop in ports for a day or two at a time while on ships. Since drinking is not allowed at sea, sailors often make it their goal to consume as much alcohol as possible while on land. The isolation and intense pressure that comes from performing a demanding job while at sea also contributes to the desire to blow off steam and party whenever given the chance. Unfortunately, this custom and others like it in the military contribute to the high rate of dangerous binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as more than four drinks in a day for women, and more than five drinks for men. This excessive consumption contributes to a problematic relationship with alcohol in addition to deteriorating mental health, physical health issues, and increased rates of sexual assault.
Unique Mental Health Needs
The military lifestyle is unique in many ways, and the demands of the profession, as well as a lack of resources for emotional management often result in mental health struggles. Many military members must leave their families, often for the first time, and live in various duty stations around the world. As soon as roots are put down and friendships established, it is time to leave again. This nomadic lifestyle can take a toll on the service member and their family, especially when extra deployments and overseas trainings are added to time away. Parents often spend long periods of time away from their children, or even miss their births.
These situations and many others contribute to the likelihood of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Some service members may be reluctant to discuss their deteriorating mental health out of fear of being perceived as incapable of fulfilling their duties or because of fear of living with the stigma of mental illness. For those service members exposed to war and violence, the likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder is high. PTSD can become a debilitating condition that severely affects quality of life, and often leads to substance abuse.
Changing the Trend
Some experts believe the rise of alcohol consumption in the military deserves to be classified as a crisis. Alcohol abuse is a major health concern that affects physical health, mental wellness, job performance, and relationships. Without addressing this epidemic, it is very difficult to maintain the health and wellness of service members. There has been some discussion surrounding the outdated materials and resources available to those with addictions in the military, including one study that found military healthcare may be neglecting to utilize modern treatment methods. This study found that military addiction counselors were being trained using guidelines and material from 1984, proving that addiction treatment in the military is due for a serious update. Along with better quality treatment, certain cultural shifts must begin to take place to stop normalizing excessive drinking in the military and protect service members from a life plagued with the effects of alcohol abuse.
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