Painkillers Cited in Pentagon Survey
About one in four soldiers admit abusing prescription drugs, most of them pain relievers, in a one-year period, according to a Pentagon health survey released Wednesday.
The study, which surveyed more than 28,500 U.S. troops last year, showed that about 20% of Marines had also abused prescription drugs, mostly painkillers, in that same period.
The findings show the continued toll on the military from fighting wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. Those wars have required troops to serve multiple combat deployments.
"We are aware that more prescription drugs are being used today for pain management and behavioral health issues," Brig. Gen. Colleen McGuire, director of the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force, said Wednesday. "These areas of substance abuse along with increased use of alcohol concern us."
The survey showed that pain relievers were the most abused drug in the military, used illicitly at a rate triple that of marijuana or amphetamines, the next most widely abused drugs.
About 15% of soldiers said they had abused prescription drugs in the 30 days before they were questioned for the survey. About 10% of Marines said the same thing.
Prescription drug abuse is "an issue for American society as well, and we're looking at it from every possible angle," McGuire said.
Painkiller abuse among troops has soared since 2005, the last time a similar study was conducted. The 2005 survey showed that 4% of soldiers had abused painkillers in the previous 30 days, compared with 13% in 2008. Abuse within the previous year was 10% in 2005 compared with 22% in 2008.
The authors of the report released Wednesday said different questions were used in 2008 compared with previous years. That makes an exact comparison difficult.
The 2008 survey asked more specific questions, such as whether troops were engaged in any non-medical use of the drugs they were prescribed.
Prescription drug abuse among the civilian population dropped in 2008 compared with 2007, a federal report released in September shows.
USA TODAY reported last year that narcotic pain-relief prescriptions for injured or wounded U.S. troops jumped from 30,000 a month to 50,000 since the Iraq war began.
Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general, created a task force this year to review the service's pain management practices.
In addition, the Army is expanding programs to treat and educate soldiers about drug abuse. But the service struggles to provide enough drug counselors and needs to hire 270 to 300, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff, said last month.
Other survey findings include:
- The percentage of troops showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder increased during the war years. In a 2005 survey, 7% of the servicemembers described symptoms suggesting PTSD. That increased to 11% in the 2008 study.
The largest increases were within the Army and Marine Corps, the two service branches doing most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rate of soldiers who described problems suggestive of PTSD increased from 9% in 2005 to 13% in 2008, and from 8% to 15% among Marines, the survey results show.
- Nearly 60% of Marines admit engaging in binge drinking. The rate of heavy alcohol use -- defined as five or more drinks per occasion once a week -- among all servicemembers ages 18 to 35 remained higher than in the civilian population.
- Servicemembers admitting that they had thoughts of suicide during the year prior to being surveyed doubled from 1% in 2005 to 2% in 2008.
December 17, 2009