Civilian Life, Not Combat, May Drive Many Veterans to Drink

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THURSDAY, July 31, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Difficulties in civilian life, rather than war experiences, are a source of drinking problems among U.S. National Guard soldiers back at home, a new study suggests.

Setbacks such as job loss, divorce and financial problems -- all common for returning vets -- may make as many as 13 percent of vets turn to drink, researchers found.

"Exposure to combat-related traumatic events has an important effect on mental health in the short term, but what defines long-term mental health problems among Guardsmen is having to deal with a lot of daily life difficulties that arise in the aftermath of deployment when soldiers come home," said lead researcher Magdalena Cerda, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York City.

These difficulties don't just aggravate existing drinking problems; "they may lead to new cases of alcohol use disorder," Cerda said. "To prevent the problem of alcohol abuse in the military from growing, we need to help Guardsmen who return home to find jobs, rebuild their marriages and their families, and reintegrate into their communities."

Nearly 7 percent of Americans have drinking problems, but the rate of alcohol abuse is twice that for reserve soldiers returning from deployment, according to background information in the study.

Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York City, agreed more attention should be paid to reservists after deployment.

"We need to make sure that we support veterans through homecoming and readjustment to civilian life, because it seems like those are the stressors that might contribute to alcohol abuse," she said.

"The findings also remind us that even though our soldiers put themselves in harm's way and are exposed to multiple life-threatening events and losses during deployment, the military environment may offer a type of social support that is protective against self-damaging behaviors," Yehuda added.

For the study, published online July 31 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers collected data on about 1,000 Ohio National Guard soldiers who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009.

Over three years, the soldiers were interviewed three times and asked about their alcohol use. They also were asked about exposure to traumatic events, such as land mines, vehicle crashes, enemy fire and the deaths of fellow soldiers. They answered questions about their own injuries and about stressors in their lives since returning.

Among these veterans, six out of 10 had experienced combat-related trauma, 36 percent had experienced problems since returning, and 17 percent said they were sexually harassed during their most recent deployment.

In addition, 13 percent reported alcohol abuse or dependence during their first interview, 7 percent at the second interview and 5 percent during the third interview, the researchers said.

Cerda found that having at least one civilian stressor or an incident of sexual harassment during deployment increased the odds for alcohol problems among those who hadn't abused alcohol before. Combat-related events, however, were not strongly associated with alcohol problems.

Mark Kaplan, a professor of social welfare at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles, said re-entering civilian life after deployment can be "quite tough."

"Perhaps we have stressed mental health problems too much and what we need more of is an emphasis on the psychosocial circumstances," he said.

Kaplan said having social workers or professionals work with military families could help veterans readjust to life back home.

"Many are not prepared for departure to combat and many are not prepared to cope once they return," he said.

More information

For more on alcohol abuse, visit the American Academy of Family Physicians.