Substance use disorders (SUDs) are a significant health problem in the United States. These disorders, which include alcohol abuse, illegal drug use and prescription drug misuse, are areas of concern for the military because of their potential impacts on mission readiness, productivity, personal health and mental health.
Heavy drinkers report higher levels of overall stress, relationship difficulties, financial problems, suicidal ideation, history of abuse, and symptoms of anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Service members with substance use disorders may benefit from treatment and support, but often they don’t seek care. Many negative ideas that people have about SUDs and mental health care are simply not true. These myths can perpetuate stigma that keeps people from reaching out for the help they need. It’s critical that service members understand the facts about SUDs and treatments that are available.
Myths vs. Facts
- Myth: Alcohol and drug abuse are not real disorders; people are just overindulging
Fact: The medical and scientific communities recognize that substance misuse can lead to substance abuse disorders, which are real medical conditions. Research shows that addictive substances can change brain chemistry and their overuse causes significant health, social and work problems. SUDs are also a major cause of death and disability and are recognized as one of the largest public health problem in the United States today.
- Myth: People who overuse alcohol or drugs just lack willpower
Fact: Although some people can simply stop using certain substances – sometimes called going “cold turkey” – many people will require help and support before they can recover from a substance use disorder. For those who can cut back or quit drinking alcohol whenever they want, it can be hard to imagine that someone needs help to quit using or abusing a substance. However, someone with a SUD has developed a powerful physical and psychological relationship to the substance that makes quitting without help difficult. Treatment isn’t meant to replace willpower; it provides people with the support they need to get clean and maintain abstinence.
- Myth: I have to hit rock-bottom before I will benefit from treatment
Fact: The progression of a substance use disorder can be interrupted at any point in time. There is no need for you to experience drastic events before you get help. It is better to minimize the impact of the disorder and get treatment before you harm or lose relationships or jobs.
- Myth: Treatment does not work
Fact: There are many effective treatments for SUDs supported by decades of research. Several types of counseling help people recover from substance use disorder. Different medications can also help with certain SUDs by reducing cravings or minimizing withdrawal symptoms.
- Myth: If I seek care, everyone in my unit will know
Fact: There are requirements in the Military Health System for informing command and/or making referrals for substance use evaluation and treatment, which vary by service. In general, if you voluntarily seek treatment, rather than being forced to complete an evaluation or enter treatment, it is less likely to impact your career. Military providers and substance use programs maintain your confidentiality except for requirements by law or policy to notify your command, or in cases when your safety or the safety of someone else is a concern.
- Myth: Getting care will hurt my career
Fact: Seeking care can actually strengthen and protect your career by minimizing the impact of symptoms on your job performance. Failing to seek care may worsen your health and increases the likelihood of an adverse event (such as driving under the influence, having a positive drug screen, being late to work, etc.), which will likely negatively impact your career. These events could lead to loss of rank, personal relationships or leadership positions.
- Myth: I will lose my security clearance if I seek help
Fact: For most service members, getting help for a substance use disorder will not result in a loss of clearance as long as they are able to make the necessary changes to regain control of their life. In reality, only a very small number of applicants are denied a security clearance based on substance use concerns.
- Myth: I will be administratively separated if I seek care
Fact: Substance use disorders are treatable, so recovery and return to duty is expected. There are some circumstances when you could be administratively separated, such as if you are using illegal drugs, abusing prescription medications, or if you fail a treatment or aftercare program. Service members who come forward voluntarily to get treatment for an illegal drug abuse issue may be allowed to remain in the service, if they complete treatment and recover.
- Myth: I will lose leadership roles and the trust of my unit if I get care
Fact: You are much more likely to lose a leadership role if you have a SUD-related event, like a DUI, being late for work or engaging in violence. Service members with untreated SUDs are likely to reduce unit readiness and may impair mission completion. Substance use may cause problems for the service member’s unit because of absences from work or mistakes made due to intoxication or during withdrawal from a substance. Getting substance use disorders under control is a way to maintain the trust of your unit and leadership.