Drinking Problems Greater Among Returning Combat Veterans

TUESDAY Aug. 12, 2008 -- A host of new studies confirm that the effects of war linger long after the conflict ends.

The Aug. 13 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association is a special themed issue on violence and human rights, and three studies published in that issue found that various mental health issues, such as alcohol misuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), were more common after exposure to violent conflicts. The one bright spot was a study that found suicide rates weren't higher for returning combat veterans.

The first study found that veterans coming home from combat were 63 percent more likely to report new-onset heavy drinking than were military personnel that hadn't been deployed to combat zones.

"Our study found that combat deployment in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was significantly associated with new-onset heavy weekly drinking, binge drinking, and other alcohol-related problems among Reserve/Guard and younger personnel after return from deployment," wrote the study's authors, who represent various branches of the U.S. military, including the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego.

"Because alcohol use may serve as a coping mechanism after traumatic events, it is plausible that deployment is associated with increased rates of alcohol consumption or problem drinking," the researchers suggested.

Their study included nearly 50,000 military personnel: 26,613 were active duty and 21,868 were Reserve or National Guard. Most -- 37,310 -- were not deployed, while 5,661 were deployed, but in non-combat areas. Just over 5,500 were deployed into combat zones.

New-onset rates of heavy weekly drinking were 8.8 percent after combat deployment, according to the study. Rates of new-onset binge drinking were 25.6 percent for combat veterans returning home, and new-onset alcohol-related problems were 7.1 percent.

Young soldiers had the highest risk for developing alcohol-related outcomes, and Reserve and National Guard members returning from combat had higher rates of new-onset heavy drinking than soldiers from other military branches, according to the study.

"I think this study is probably very accurate. As part of the re-entry process, people will turn to coping mechanisms that are easily accessible, and alcohol is easily available, socially acceptable and quite effective for short-term stress relief," said Jeffrey T. Parsons, chair of the department of psychology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in New York City. Parsons added that long-term use of alcohol as a coping mechanism can lead to numerous negative outcomes.

He recommended that returning soldiers try to immediately rebuild their support networks. If a deployment has lasted awhile, Parsons pointed out that friends and family members may have moved or just drifted away. "Surround yourself with people you can talk to and establish a support system that isn't tied to a bar," he advised.

Parsons added that being a soldier doesn't mean that you have to be devoid of emotions, and that asking for help isn't a sign of weakness. And, he added, this study may trigger awareness campaigns for military personnel that could "have a huge effect, and it could lead people to treatment on their own." He added that if the military were to develop some kind of routine psychological screening for returning veterans, it "would be a real and clear indication that they valued and respected the contribution of these people."

Another study, this one published as a letter in the same issue of the journal, offers some good news about the mental health of returning combat veterans. This study found there were no statistically significant differences in the rates of suicide between U.S. veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan compared to the U.S. population as a whole.

Two other studies in the same issue looked at former child soldiers in Nepal and in people who fought in the Liberian civil wars who experienced sexual violence. In both groups, researchers found higher rates of PTSD symptoms and depression. Thoughts of suicide were also higher in Liberians who had been exposed to sexual violence.

More information

To learn more about alcohol abuse, visit the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Posted: August 2008


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