Institute of Medicine report finds substance abuse a major public health crisis within the U.S. military

September 17, 2012

WALTHAM, Mass. – In response to Congressional concerns the Institute of Medicine released a report on substance use disorders in the armed forces. The Department of Defense (DoD) had asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to analyze policies and programs that pertain to prevention, screening, diagnosis, and treatment of substance use disorders (SUDs) for active duty service members in all branches of the armed services.  

Heller senior scientist Mary Jo Larson, PhD '92, was one of 14 committee members who wrote the report. Dr. Larson is the Principal Investigator of a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She is leading a team that is studying the extent to which substance abuse problems develop among Army members who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The IOM committee was chaired by University of Pennsylvania professor Charles P. O’Brien, MD, and included prevention, treatment, pharmaceutical, and health services experts from private sector health plans, medical schools, other Universities, and public policy research programs.  

Alcohol and drug use and misuse are called a major public health crisis within the ranks of the armed forces in the IOM report.  Calling for an effective response, the DoD is asked to take leadership by collecting data that holds each branch of the armed services accountable.  Consistently implementing prevention, screening, diagnosis, and treatment services in the DoD is also called for.  The committee made strong recommendations for an acknowledgement by the highest levels of military leadership that current deterrence policies alone are an insufficient response, and urged DoD to make a commitment to use a broad arsenal of effective public health strategies to prevent and address substance use problems in medical settings and through confidential and expanded access to treatment. 

Larson explained that the committee is hopeful that many of the recommendations will be implemented because they present clear guidance for how the DoD can effectively and affordably rehabilitate members who seek assistance.  She says, “It is in the military’s best interest as well as society’s to retain within the military those service members  who have proven they are highly functional in their jobs in overseas deployments.  These service men and women have received intensive military training, an investment which is jeopardized when the military does not intervene with substance use problems that emerge. More importantly, these men and women and their families made sacrifices for the nation, and these services can improve their well-being. We have science-based interventions to address and prevent substance use problems and it is imperative these strategies be implemented.”  

The Heller School’s Institute for Behavioral Health has sponsored a military health working group and received support to conduct research on various topics involving active duty military and their families, ranging from deployment problems and combat operational stress, to post-deployment screening and emergence of substance abuse problems post-deployment, to complementary and alternative interventions for post-traumatic stress. 

View the report

Read media coverage of the report:

Report Faults Military's Strategies on Drug and Alcohol Abuse (New York Times)

The Downer Side of War (TIME)

Study: Military needs to better address drug, alcohol abuse by troops (USA Today)

Study: Military drinking 'culture' now a 'crisis' (Associated Press)

McCaskill Reacts to Institute of Medicine Study on the Treatment of Substance Abuse in the U.S. Military

Study: Level of military substance abuse now a 'public health crisis,' Pentagon care outdated (Washington Post)

Military Not Doing Enough to Curb Alcohol, Drug Abuse, IOM Concludes (PBS NewsHour)

Substance abuse in military rises (CNN)

Institute of Medicine calls drinking, drug abuse in U.S. military a "public health crisis" (CBS News)

Military Substance-Abuse Programs Critiqued by Panel (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Military not doing enough to help soldiers with substance abuse, study finds (Baltimore Sun)