Military Families

February 28, 2020

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) in collaboration with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) collected a survey that examined the substance use and mental health issues among spouses and children of U.S. military personnel. The theory was that the hardship associated with military service may put families of military personnel at a higher risk for substance use and mental health issues.

The survey found that among the estimated 910,000 military wives aged 18 to 40 in 2015, 12.8 % of the military wives aged 18-49 had used illicit drugs in the past year, 67% drank alcohol in the past 30 days and 31.5% engaged in binge drinking in the past 30 days. When compared with all married women aged 18 to 49, military wives were less likely to use marijuana (5.1% vs 8.0%), more likely to use alcohol in the last 30 days (67.8 vs 53.8%) and were more likely to binge drink in the past 30 days (31.5 vs 22.%) .

In the past year, an estimated 29.1 percent of military wives aged 18 to 49 had any mental illness. 11.8 % had at least one major depressive episode, and 6.5 % had a major depressive episode with severe impairment. In general, estimates for all mental health and mental health service use were the similar for military wives and all married women aged 18 to 49. However military wives aged 18 to 49 were more likely than married women in this group to have any mental illness.

Among the estimated 524,200 military children aged 12 to 17 in 2015, 19.6 % used illicit drugs in the past year. 9.3 % used alcohol in the past 30 days, 4.6 % engaged in binge drinking in the past 30 days. This survey found no statistically significant differences between military children and all children aged 12 to 17 for any of the estimates related to either substance use or major depressive disorder. The authors of the study did indicate that their results may be due to the relatively small number surveyed and their inability to know the deployment history of loved ones of the families they collected data on.

Their findings on military children are in contrast to a survey conducted by the University of Iowa from 2010 that surveyed sixth, eighth, and 11th graders in Iowa that suggested that deployment of a parent puts these children at an increased risk for drinking alcohol and using drugs. The authors of this study were not sure if their data was skewed by only collecting data from military families in Iowa.

In regards to risk behaviors, several studies report increased rates of drug use and drinking among teens with a deployed or recently deployed parent (Acion et al.) Reed, Bell, & Edwards 2011 found adolescents with a deployed parent were significantly more likely to binge drink in the previous 2 weeks as compared to a civilian sample. Another study conducted with adolescents, school staff, and parents from 8 different bases found increases on adolescent stress and anxiety during deployment periods.

We know that the families of military personnel are a resilient group who sacrifice many things for their country while experiencing hardships related to extended periods of separation, insecurity about the next separation, and the risk of serious injury or death to their loved one who is serving.

From these studies it can be recommended that we continue research that examines the unique risk factors associated with substance use among military families. Other recommendations include making sure that services for military families for substance abuse and mental health issues are readily available and the continued collaboration between the DOD and community based programs that provide services to military families will benefit the families.

The New Bridge Foundation’s Operation Success program treats active duty military and their dependents who are 18 years or older. If you have any questions about these services please contact Victoria Leff, LCSW at 800-785-2400 or 510-548-7270.