Prescription Drug Abuse in the Military: Understanding the Challenge and Finding Hope

by | Oct 5, 2023 | Addiction, Recovery | 0 comments

Prescription drug abuse in the military is a complex and often hidden problem. Many service members face unique challenges, such as combat-related injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic pain, making them vulnerable to prescription drug misuse. The availability of prescription drugs within the military healthcare system can also contribute to this issue. Additionally, the pressure to maintain peak physical and mental performance can sometimes lead to the misuse of medications. In fact, studies have shown that military personnel are at a higher risk of prescription drug abuse than civilians. The good news is understanding the challenges can help combat the problem.

Why Do Military Personnel Receive Prescription Drugs?

Military personnel are prescribed prescription medications for various legitimate medical reasons, just like civilians. The military healthcare system provides medical care to service members and their families, and prescriptions are a common part of healthcare delivery. Some reasons military personnel may receive prescription medications include:

  • Treatment of Injuries. Military personnel often face physical injuries from training exercises, accidents, or combat situations. Prescription medications like pain relievers (e.g., opioids) may be prescribed to manage pain during recovery.
  • Mental Health Conditions. The stress and trauma of military service can lead to mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and antipsychotics may be prescribed to address these conditions.
  • Deployment Health. Before deployments, service members may receive medications to prevent or manage specific health concerns, such as malaria prophylaxis or vaccines for region-specific diseases.

How Does Prescription Drug Abuse In The Military Typically Begin?

Misuse and prescription drug addiction typically develop as a result of:

  • Pain Management. As mentioned earlier, injuries sustained during military service can lead to the legitimate prescription of pain medications like opioids. Misuse may begin when a service member continues to use these medications beyond the prescribed duration or dosage to manage persistent pain.
  • Stress and Coping. The high-stress environment of the military, particularly during deployments or combat situations, can lead to increased stress and anxiety. Some individuals may misuse prescription medications like benzodiazepines to self-medicate and cope with these stressors.
  • Self-Medication. Some military personnel may have underlying mental health issues, such as PTSD or depression, which they may attempt to self-medicate with prescription drugs. This self-medication can lead to dependency and addiction.
  • Accessibility. The accessibility of prescription medications within the military healthcare system may make it easier for service members to obtain these drugs, even when they are not medically necessary.

What Are The Most Commonly Misused Prescription Drugs In The Military?

The most commonly misused prescription drugs in the military can vary depending on the specific military branch, deployment locations, and individual circumstances. However, several classes of prescription drugs have been reported as commonly misused among military personnel:

  • Opioids. Opioid painkillers like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl are frequently prescribed to manage pain from injuries sustained during training or combat. Unfortunately, some service members may misuse these medications for their euphoric effects, leading to dependence and addiction.
  • Benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines, including Xanax and Valium, are prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. The sedative effects of benzodiazepines can appeal to those struggling with stress or sleep disturbances, but misuse can lead to dependency and withdrawal symptoms.
  • Stimulants. Stimulant medications like Adderall and Ritalin, typically prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may be misused by military personnel seeking increased alertness, focus, and energy, especially during demanding missions or long deployments.
  • Sleep Medications. Prescription sleep aids, such as Ambien and Lunesta, may be misused by service members to combat insomnia, a common issue because of irregular schedules, shift work, and high-stress environments.
  • Antidepressants. While not typically considered drugs of abuse, antidepressants can be misused, especially when individuals attempt to self-medicate for depression or anxiety without proper medical guidance.
  • Muscle Relaxants. Muscle relaxants like Flexeril and Soma may be prescribed for pain relief in cases of musculoskeletal injuries. Misuse can occur when individuals take these medications in higher doses or for longer durations than prescribed.

Signs Of Prescription Drug Abuse

Signs of prescription drug addiction that may be specific to military personnel:

  • Decline in Military Performance. A significant drop in performance, missed training sessions, or decreased readiness could indicate prescription drug addiction among military personnel. The demands of military service require constant readiness, and a decline in these areas can be alarming.
  • Failure to Pass Physical Fitness Tests. Maintaining physical fitness is crucial in the military. Prescription drug addiction may lead to decreased physical stamina and strength, resulting in the inability to pass required fitness tests.
  • Unexplained Absences During Deployment. Service members addicted to prescription drugs may suddenly go missing during deployments or crucial missions, jeopardizing the safety and effectiveness of their units.
  • Inconsistent Accountability. Failure to maintain accurate records of prescription medications, especially in sensitive military environments where controlled substances are used, can indicate misuse or addiction.
  • Deployment-Related Mental Health Issues. Some military personnel may misuse prescription drugs to cope with the stress and trauma of deployments. This can lead to unaddressed mental health issues and an increased risk of addiction.
  • Isolation from Unit or Squad. A noticeable withdrawal from unit or squad activities, reduced camaraderie, and avoidance of fellow service members can be signs of addiction, as the individual may be isolated to hide their drug use.
  • Lack of Engagement in Training and Professional Development. Service members addicted to prescription drugs may neglect opportunities for professional development, advanced training, or promotions, which are essential for career advancement in the military.

Tricare’s Role in Combating Prescription Drug Abuse

TriCare, the healthcare program serving the U.S. Department of Defense, is crucial in addressing prescription drug abuse among service members. Some of their efforts include:

  • Education and Prevention. TriCare provides resources and educational materials to service members, their families, and healthcare providers to raise awareness about prescription drug abuse and prevention strategies.
  • Treatment Coverage. TriCare covers a range of substance abuse treatment services, making it easier for military personnel to seek help when needed.
  • Network of Providers. TriCare has an extensive network of healthcare providers, including those specializing in addiction treatment, ensuring that service members can access quality care.

Finding Hope

Prescription drug abuse in the military is a challenging issue, but it’s one that we can address with understanding, compassion, and effective strategies. Our treatment programs and TriCare offer hope for a brighter future. By continuing to raise awareness, expanding access to treatment, and supporting our service members, we can work together to combat prescription drug abuse and help those who have sacrificed so much for our nation find hope and healing. Contact us today if you or someone you know is struggling with prescription drug abuse.