Coast Guard Substance Abuse Trends and Resources
Military service members are at higher risk for developing substance use disorders (SUDs), including people who are or were in the Coast Guard.1 Military service can also lead to increased risk for mental health disorders such as suicide.1
It’s imperative that service members have access to quality mental health and addiction treatment. In this article you’ll learn more about:
- Substance abuse trends in the Coast Guard, as well as resources for Coast Guardsmen to access.
- Mental health and suicide concerns in the service.
- Options outside of the VA for treatment.
Substance Abuse Trends in the Coast Guard
In general, the military has high rates of alcohol abuse.2, 3 Service members drink more frequently than any other profession, on average drinking 130 days out of the year.2 This rate has steadily risen in the last 6 years.2 Nearly 70% of service members view military culture as “supportive of drinking,” which could contribute to drinking behaviors.3
Substance use statistics of Coast Guardsmen show that:
- About 91% drink alcohol.4
- Nearly 40% binge drink.4
- 34% drink in ways that could indicate the presence of an alcohol use disorder (AUD).3
- 7% are heavy drinkers, with an average yearly intake of 14 or more drinks weekly for males, 7 or more for females.4
- Personnel stationed afloat have higher rates of heavy drinking than personnel stationed ashore or aviation personnel.4
Binge drinking refers to having 5 or more drinks for males, or 4 or more drinks for females within a 2-hour period.2, 3 Binge drinking can increase blood alcohol levels quickly, and it can be dangerous.5 Binge drinking can be a warning sign of AUD, particularly if other diagnostic criteria are met.5
AUD is the most common addiction in active-duty personnel.1 AUD is a pattern of behavior diagnosed when a person meets 2 or more of the following criteria within 12 months:6, 7
- Drinking after knowing it had caused or worsened a health issue, whether physical or mental.
- Drinking even after it has caused issues with family, friends, or others.
- Drinking in dangerous situations, such as while driving.
- Drinking more or for a longer period than planned.
- Experiencing strong urges to drink.
- Having difficulty managing responsibilities at home, school, or work because of alcohol.
- Needing more alcohol to get the desired effect, or the usual amount of alcohol has less of an effect.
- Quitting or cutting back on hobbies or social activities due to alcohol use.
- Spending a lot of time getting, drinking, or recovering from the effects of alcohol.
- Wanting to quit drinking or being unable to stop.
- Withdrawal symptoms appearing when alcohol use is stopped.
One of the main functions of the Coast Guard is to intercept drug trafficking.8 Because of the strict zero-tolerance policy in all branches of the military, drug use is low among active service members, including Coast Guardsmen.9
SUDs can occur, however, and warning signs include experiencing 2 or more of the following within 12 months:6, 10
- Experiencing strong cravings for a drug.
- Having difficulty managing responsibilities at home, school, or work because of drug use.
- Needing more of a substance to get the desired effect, or the usual amount has less of an effect.
- Quitting or cutting back on hobbies or social activities due to substance use.
- Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from the effects of drugs.
- Using after knowing it had caused or worsened a health issue, whether physical or mental.
- Using even after it has caused issues with family, friends, or others.
- Using in dangerous situations, such as while driving.
- Using more of a substance or for a longer period than planned.
- Wanting to quit using or being unable to stop.
- Withdrawal symptoms appearing when drug use is stopped.
Substance Abuse Resources for Coast Guardsmen
While trends don’t indicate high levels of substance use in the Coast Guard, this doesn’t mean that substance abuse doesn’t occur. Fortunately, there are resources available to help Coast Guardsmen who struggle with substance use. These include:
- Prime for Life, a program that aims to prevent substance use issues from worsening.11
- Substance Abuse Prevention Program (SAPP), which addresses substance use and provides treatment for SUDs.11
- Referrals to treatment, either self-referred or through command.11
Behavioral Health in the Coast Guard
Military service members are at increased risk of developing behavioral health issues, such as SUDs, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.1 Factors that may contribute to these issues include: 1, 2, 12
- Being deployed.
- Exposure to combat.
- Combat injury.
- Struggling to adjust to life after separation.
In the Coast Guard, PTSD is twice as likely to occur from trauma related to first responder duties.12, 13
The term co-occurring disorders refers to when a person has both an SUD and a mental health disorder. Mental illness increases the risk of developing an SUD, and vice versa.4, 14 This trend applies to veterans as well, especially once zero-tolerance policies no longer apply.1, 14
Suicides Go Unmeasured in the Coast Guard
The Department of Veterans Affairs runs a crisis hotline that connects service members, veterans, and family members to trained responders, many of whom are veterans.14 This hotline, reachable at 1-800-273-8255, is available 24/7.
The Suicide Prevention Program provides crisis services for any Coast Guardsmen who may be considering suicide.15 It can be reached 24/7 at 855-247-8778.
The Coast Guard is exempt from having to release suicide data publicly, whereas other branches of the military must report.13 This is because the Coast Guard is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, as opposed to the Department of Defense, which oversees all other branches of the military.13Suicides in the Coast Guard do occur, and command has actively been working on ways to address and reduce suicides in its ranks.13
Help for Veterans Through American Addiction Centers
While the Coast Guard has resources for addiction, ask does the VA for veterans, there are options outside of the military that could work well for your or your loved one.
Recovery First is a facility in Hollywood, Florida that offers specialized care for veterans and first responders. The Salute to Recovery program our facility offers is designed to treat SUDs and co-occurring disorders among veterans and first responders.
Because some of our staff members are also veterans and first responders they can better understand your experiences. A variety of effective treatment techniques are used to help participants learn to live clean and sober, manage any mental health symptoms that may be present, address any physical health issues, and improve relationships with family.
Another American Addiction Centers’ facility that offers treatment for veterans is Desert Hope in Las Vegas. Treatment involves individual, group, and family therapy, learning to manage anger and conflict, improving communication skills, and support groups. Program participants and staff members are veterans who understand what you’re going through.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Substance use and military life.
- Military Times. (2020). The military leads all other professions in the number of days spent drinking per year, study claims.
- Military Advantage. (2018). Binge-drinking rates are highest in these military services.
- United States Coast Guard. (2014). 2013 State of the behavioral health of the United States Coast Guard.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Binge drinking.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol use disorder.
- United States Coast Guard. Missions.
- United States Coast Guard. (2018). Coast Guard substance abuse prevention and treatment, military drug and alcohol, and related policies.
- National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers. (2016). Warning signs of substance misuse and substance use disorder.
- United States Coast Guard. (2018). Coast Guard substance abuse prevention and treatment manual.
- Servatius, R.J., Handy, J.D., Doria, M.J., Myers, C.E., Marx, C.E., Lipsky, R., … & Tsau, J.W. (2017). Stress-related mental health symptoms in Coast Guard: Incidence, vulnerability, and neurocognitive performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(1513), 1-11.
- Military Families. (2019). Vice Commandant addresses suicide within the Coast Guard.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2018 National survey on drug use and health: Veterans.
- United States Coast Guard. Office of Work-Life: Suicide prevention program.