Sailors and Substance Abuse: How the Navy is Dealing with Addiction

Substance Abuse in the Navy

Substance abuse is an issue in the Navy, just as it is in all branches of the military and among the civilian population. However, drinking, and in particular binge drinking, is the most common type of substance abuse noted among sailors.1

A Culture of Alcohol Abuse

binge drinking is a common problem among sailersBinge drinking, which is defined as having more than 5 drinks on one occasion for men and 4 or more drinks for women, is prevalent among active-duty military, with the Navy ranking second among all service branches in rates of binge drinking.1

In addition, around 40% of sailors could be classified as risky drinkers with potential alcohol use disorders.1 The Navy does not allow alcohol use onboard ships and submarines. When sailors enter a port, they can drink and then tend to drink to excess.

Alcohol use is common in military life. Alcoholic beverages are relatively cheap on base and are readily available. In fact, over 68% of service members of all branches believed that the military is supportive of alcohol use in general. 1 (near end)

Binge drinking does not always indicate that a person has an alcohol use disorder, but it can be a sign of one. In the U.S., 1 in 6 adults binge drinks 4 times per month. It is more common among males and people under the age of 35. About 90% of people who drink excessively have engaged in binge drinking in the past 30 days.2

The signs of alcohol use disorder can include:3

  • Craving alcohol.
  • Trying unsuccessfully to cut back or stop drinking.
  • Spending a lot of time drinking or recuperating from drinking.
  • Continuing to drink despite knowing it makes a mental health or physical health issue worse.
  • Drinking even though it increases family conflict.
  • Not being able to do what is required of you at work, school, or at home.
  • Losing interest in things that once mattered to you in order to drink.
  • Using alcohol even when it leads to risky situations, such as driving.
  • Having symptoms of physical withdrawal when you try to stop drinking.
  • Needing more and more alcohol to get the same effects from drinking.
  • Drinking more than you planned to drink.

Drug Use in the Navy

Drug use does exist in the Navy, despite drug testing and severe penalties for drug use in the military. For example, a group of Navy SEALS tested positively for cocaine in 2018. Four were administratively separated from the Navy.4

Drug addiction can be identified through numerous signs, including:5

  • Cravings to use.
  • Using it more often or in bigger amounts than you planned.
  • Being unable to control your use.
  • Using in hazardous ways, such as using drugs and driving.
  • Neglecting hobbies due to using drugs.
  • Not fulfilling roles at home and work due to drug use.
  • Using even though it makes your medical or emotional issues worse.
  • Experiencing physical withdrawal when you try to stop using.
  • Tolerance, in which you must take more and more of a drug to keep getting the same effects.
  • Using even when it increases conflict in your relationships.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse Resources for Sailors

Numerous resources for sailors are available through the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center, which offers multiple tip sheets on various topics related to drug and alcohol use. The Navy also offers the Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation Program, which aids Navy personnel in identifying and referring sailors with substance abuse problems.

Military One Source is another valuable resource with information for sailors looking for treatment and information.

TRICARE insurance may cover substance abuse rehab. TRICARE offers a list of treatment providers available to you or your loved one.

As with all the branches of the military, Navy personnel also deal with mental health concerns. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common diagnosis among veterans and active-duty sailors. PTSD can result from experiencing any traumatic event, including the violence of combat and sexual assault.6

Suicide Among Soldiers, SEALs, and Officers

The Veteran’s Crisis Line is a resource for sailors who find themselves feeling overwhelmed and in need of help. The number is 1-800-273-8255.

The Navy’s rate of suicide among active-duty personnel more than doubled from 2006 to 2018.7 To provide support and hopefully counteract the trend, the Navy has since implemented several suicide prevention programs, including the 1 Small ACT campaign. ACT stands for8:

  • Ask – Ask directly: are you thinking of killing yourself?
  • Care– Listen without judgment. Show that you care.
  • Treat – Get the sailor immediate assistance. Escort him or her to the nearest chaplain, trusted leader, or medical professional for treatment.

Mental health issues and substance abuse issues can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions if not identified and treated. Active-duty service members and veterans who are expressing suicidal thoughts or talking about wanting to commit suicide should receive intervention immediately.

TRICARE also provides crisis services for veterans in need and can connect you to a variety of providers to meet your needs.

Help for Veterans Through American Addiction Centers

American Addiction Centers offers programs that are specifically designed to work with veterans. The Salute to Recovery program helps veterans with substance use and other mental health disorders in a specialized program geared toward their particular needs.

Salute to Recovery is available at Desert Hope in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Recovery First in Hollywood, Florida.



  1. Harkins, G. (2018). Binge-drinking rates are highest in these military services.
  2. Centers for Disease Control (2019). Binge drinking.
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol use disorder.
  4. Ziezulewicz, G. (2019). Internal report exposes cocaine abuse, lax testing, inside SEAL Team 10. Navy Times.
  5. National Association of Addiction Treatment Professionals. (2016) Warning signs of substance misuse and substance use disorder.
  6. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2018). PTSD.
  7. Navy Personnel Command (2019). Suicide prevention: Statistics.
  8. Navy Suicide Prevention Program (2019). Navy suicide prevention handbook.
The Price of Not Getting Help
When contemplating the costs of addiction treatment for yourself, child, or loved one, consider the costs, or consequences, of “things as they are now.” What would happen if the substance abuse or addiction continued? Contact Recovery First, and we will help you or your loved one get the treatment needed to stop the dangerous, progressive effects of addiction.