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Substance Abuse in the Navy

Addiction and mental health disorders are prevalent among both the U.S. Navy’s active service members and veterans.

Addiction in the Navy

Addiction is a chronic medical disease characterized by the compulsive use of substances despite harmful consequences.1 While addiction can affect anyone, veterans are more likely than the civilian population to develop issues with substance abuse.2-4 Alcohol and prescription medication are the most commonly abused substances by active duty sailors. Veterans are more likely to be addicted to alcohol or opioids.2,5

Alcohol Abuse

Drinking alcohol is often used to alleviate stress, boredom, or loneliness, and to socialize.6 The widespread availability of alcohol makes drinking a common pastime for active duty sailors while on shore leave.6 Drinking habits may persist and worsen after retiring from the Navy.6 Statistics indicate that:2,7

  • Alcoholism is the most common addiction among U.S. military veterans.
  • Almost 35% of Navy sailors engaged in binge drinking, the second-highest rate among all military branches.
  • More than 35% of active military were identified as hazardous drinkers or possibly having an addiction to alcohol.

Some warning signs of alcohol abuse can include:1,8

  • Blackouts or memory loss.
  • Bloodshot eyes.
  • Drinking in dangerous situations.
  • Frequent hangovers.
  • Lack of coordination.
  • Poor judgment.
  • Mood swings.
  • Slurring.
  • Smelling like alcohol.

Drug Abuse

Drug abuse is less likely to occur in active duty service members due to strictly enforced rules about drug use, but veterans may turn to drugs after separating from the Navy.5 Substance abuse statistics show that:

  • Less than 1% of active service members used illicit drugs in the past year.7
  • Among active duty service members, 4.1% abused at least one prescription drug in the past year, commonly opioids.7
  • Heroin accounts for 10.7% of admissions to Veterans Affairs (VA) drug rehab programs.5

Some warning signs of drug use can include:1,8

  • Blackouts or memory loss.
  • Change in eating or sleeping patterns.
  • Larger/smaller pupils.
  • Mood swings or changes.
  • Poor judgment.
  • Using in dangerous situations.

Mental Health in the Navy

U.S. Navy Sailor in uniform

The most common mental health issues found in the military are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.5,9,10 PTSD prevalence is related to deployment region, and active duty and veteran mental health statistics show that:5,9,11-13

  • Of those deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, 5-20% have PTSD.
  • About 30% of Vietnam veterans have PTSD.
  • Iraq/Afghanistan veterans, 11-20% have PTSD.
  • Of those serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, 7-15% develop depression.
  • More than 5% of service members have an anxiety disorder.
  • Of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans, 37-50% are diagnosed with mental illness.

PTSD involves flashbacks or nightmares, depression affects mood and thoughts, anxiety is a persistent state of fight-or-flight, and all can interfere with your ability to function normally.9,12,14 Exposure to stresses associated with deployment, including exposure to killing or other war-related trauma, feeling that your life was in danger, or being injured can trigger these issues.9,12,14

Addiction with Co-Occurring Illness

When an individual has a substance use disorder as well as an illness, they are diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder. Veterans with PTSD or other mental health disorders may turn to substance use in an attempt to relieve their symptoms.2,4 Co-occurring illness is common:2,3,5

  • The VA treats more than 1.1 million veterans for substance use disorder or other psychiatric disorders each year.
  • Among 82-93% of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans diagnosed with a substance use disorder were also diagnosed with another co-occurring mental health disorder.
  • About 63% of recent Afghanistan and Iraq veterans diagnosed with a substance use disorder also met the criteria for PTSD.
  • Fewer than 1% of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans diagnosed with a substance use disorder do not have a co-occurring mental health disorder.
  • Of veterans with co-occurring alcohol use disorder and drug use disorder, 75% also have PTSD.

Stigmas about Asking for Help

There is a lot of stigma surrounding treatment. Stigma is rooted in various factors, including concerns about:5,15-19

  • Being seen as different or less reliable.
  • How treatment will impact your career.
  • Lack of confidentiality.
  • Appearing weak.

Breaking down stigma involves changing perceptions about mental illness or substance abuse as well as treatment. Openly discussing mental health and treatment, particularly by high-ranking officers, helps reduce the stigma that treatment can have negative career consequences or makes you different or weak.17,19 The VA’s Make the Connection provides videos about stigma and other topics and helps link veterans to local support services.20,21

VA Substance Abuse Assessment

A confidential online screening through the VA identifies potential substance abuse issues in retired sailors. You can complete the online screening then print results to discuss with a health professional.

Addiction Treatment Options for Veterans

The VA offers addiction treatment and the MISSION Act allows veterans to use community care providers in specific situations.22,23 You must receive VA approval beforehand.22,23 The National Resource Directory can help veterans find community groups for additional support.

Crisis Hotlines

These crisis hotlines provide mental health support for veterans:

What is Salute to Recovery Program?

American Addiction Centers (AAC) offers the Salute to Recovery program, which is designed to treat the unique issues that veterans face. Treatment focuses on the veteran as a whole, tailoring care to meet your needs.

Therapy addresses addiction, mental health, trauma, life skills, family/marriage counseling, and anger management. Programs often include veterans on staff, as well as in peer groups, ensuring that you’re surrounded by people who understand your experiences and your journey in recovery.

Our Admissions Navigators are always available to assist you.

Call Now (888) 902- VETS

AAC’s admissions navigators will educate you on what the process looks like and what is needed in order for the VA to pay for a private facility on your behalf.

AAC offers the 90-day promise, a guarantee that you’ll stay clean and sober upon completion of a 90-day program, or you can receive an additional 30 days of treatment for free. To get more information or to start the admission process, contact an admission navigator.

Addiction and mental health issues are common in veterans and can feel impossible to overcome. Asking for help doesn’t mean admitting weakness but is a way to help yourself beat these challenges.

Resources are available through the VA and in your community. Community care providers, like AAC, may be able to help you overcome these obstacles. Starting treatment is the first step to a clean, healthy life.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  2. Teeters, J.B., Lancaster, C.L., Brown, D.G., & Back, S.E. (2017). Substance use disorders in military veterans: Prevalence and treatment challenges. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 8, 69-77.
  3. Lan, C.W., Fiellin, D.A., Barry, D.T., Bryant, K.J., Gordon, A.J., Edelman, E.J., … Marshall, B.D. (2016). The epidemiology of substance use disorders in US veterans: A systematic review and analysis of assessment methods. The American Journal on Addictions, 25(1), 7-24.
  4. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). PTSD and substance abuse in veterans.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Substance use and military life.
  6. Ames, G., & Cunradi, C. Alcohol use and preventing alcohol-related problems among young adults in the military.
  7. Meadows, S.O., Engel, C.C., Collins, R.L., Beckman, R.L., Cefalu, M., Hawes-Dawson, J., … Williams, K.M. (2018). 2015 Health related behaviors survey: Substance use among U.S. active-duty service members. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.
  8. Navy Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention. (2013). Keep what you’ve earned.
  9. Psychological Health Center of Excellence. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  10. RAND Corporation. (2019). Improving the quality of mental health care for veterans: Lessons from RAND research.
  11. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2018). How common is PTSD in veterans?.
  12. Psychological Health Center of Excellence. Depression.
  13. Deployment Health Clinical Center. (2017). Mental health disorder prevalence among active duty service members in the military health system, fiscal years 2005-2016.
  14. Psychological Health Center of Excellence. Anxiety.
  15. Sharp, M-L., Fear, N.T., Rona, R.J., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N., Jones, N., & Goodwin, L. (2015). Stigma as a barrier to seeking health care among military personnel with mental health problems. Epidemiologic Reviews, 37(1), 144-162.
  16. Campbell, D.G., Bonner, L.M., Bolkan, C.R., Lanto, A.B., Zivin, K., Waltz, T.J., … Chaney, E.F. (2016). Stigma predicts treatment preferences and care engagement among Veterans Affairs primary care patients with depression. Annals of Behavioral Medicine: A publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, 50(4), 533-544.
  17. Dingfelder, S.F. (2009). The military’s war on stigma. Monitor on Psychology, 40(6).
  18. Psychological Health Center of Excellence. (2019). Reducing military mental health stigma to improve treatment engagement: Guidance for clinicians.
  19. Acosta, J.D., Becker, A., Cerully, J.L., Fisher, M.P., Martin, L.T., Vardavas, R., … Schell, T.L. (2014). Mental health stigma in the military.
  20. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2015). Mental health stigma: 10 things you should know about.
  21. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Make the connection.
  22. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). Community care.
  23. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). Understanding community care.
Last Updated on August 4, 2021
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