U.S. National Guard soldiers are at heightened risk for problem drinking after military deployment, but less likely to receive help with their alcohol struggles than active-duty service members, a new study finds.
Exposure to combat during deployment was the strongest risk factor for problem drinking among the reservists in the study, according to the report published online March 8 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
"Combat events, such as having engaged in direct combat and experienced combat trauma, may precipitate a great deal of personal discomfort ('moral injury'), necessitating some form of self-soothing, such as excessive alcohol use," said study author James Griffith. He is a faculty member and research fellow at the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah.
"Unlike active-duty military personnel, reservists typically do not live near military installations to receive behavioral health care. And many are not eligible for military health care unless conditions are directly related to active-duty military service," Griffith noted in a journal news release.
For the study, Griffith analyzed the responses from more than 4,500 Army Reserve National Guard soldiers who completed an anonymous survey after returning from Iraq in 2010.
Their rates of heavy drinking were higher than reservists who weren't deployed (30% versus 24% for heavy drinking, and 34% versus 32% for binge drinking, respectively). They were also higher than rates for deployed military personnel in several previous studies, the findings showed.
More needs to be done to help reservists who are recently back from deployment, including more thoroughly assessing their alcohol risk, Griffith said.
He noted that the risk of problem drinking is greatest within one year of returning. This suggests a post-deployment educational program for service members and their families on the risk factors for alcohol use could be beneficial.
"Content would familiarize participants with indicators of unhealthy alcohol use and possible follow-up actions for those at risk," he said. "Specifically, information and guidance for obtaining informal and formal behavioral health care might be provided when soldiers are initially screened risk positive for alcohol misuse."
It's particularly important to assess the emotional state of soldiers who have had traumatic combat experience and are at especially high risk of alcohol misuse, Griffith noted.
"Given that negative emotions likely play a role in the connection of combat events and alcohol use, some form of screening should assess soldiers' emotional states, and for more severe negative emotions, include referral to psychological health care," Griffith said.
The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism outlines the signs of problem drinking.
SOURCE: Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, news release, March 9, 2022