Last updated: December 4, 2023
News broke recently that a sailor in the Navy was convicted of drug use after reaching out for mental health assistance. The story has some people questioning if this branch of the military is deputizing doctors now. In actuality, though, the psychologist who was assigned to treat the sailor was following regulations. Moreover, they have been in place for years.
The fact that Navy personnel aren’t granted the same degrees of confidentiality when seeking medical treatment as civilians isn’t anything new. It’s standard procedure—even for military personnel who have mental health concerns.
In short, the Navy mandates its physicians to inform their commanding officers of certain medical details. One of those being positive drug test results. Moreover, the circumstances under which the test is given aren’t taken into consideration.
Bringing the story out into the open has, once again, sparked an ongoing debate. Is it ethical for Navy doctors to report information to their superiors that involves someone who is concerned about mental health issues—even if there is illicit drug use involved?
The reason is, of course, because it dissuades sailors and other personnel from seeking help for conditions in which they may use illicit drugs, such as marijuana, for instance, to “self-medicate.” When someone reaches out for help, is it right for the Navy to punish them for their honesty?
A tough job puts it mildly
When young people enlist in the military, many don’t have a true sense of the rigorous lifestyle required. Intense physical training, an unrelenting officer bent on enforcing every meticulous rule and regulation, and, of course, participating in war exercises to learn how we actively defend our country become parts of everyday life.
What many who enlist don’t realize is the high amounts of stress that go with all of the above. And, we’re more than likely just touching the tip of the iceberg here.
For instance, the violence in video games desensitizes children to acts of war. However, when you actually find yourself living in the midst of it, the stark contrast between reality and virtual life becomes overwhelmingly clear.
Some young minds can’t handle it.
Keep a stiff upper lip
Enlisting in the military isn’t for the weak of heart. Military life can either make you or break you. It would be a terrible realization to come to terms with the fact that you really had no idea what you signed up for upon enlisting.
The problem is that those who “break” often keep it to themselves for fear of appearing weak. Instead of seeking professional help, many choose to “self-medicate.” When they do, and depending on their “medication” of choice, they put themselves at risk of forming an addiction.
Our troops go through all types of intense training before ever seeing a battlefield. In addition to participating in “war games” to teach necessary skills, they are taught coping skills. In other words, they learn to compartmentalize the horrors and atrocities taking place right before their eyes. They pack it down and lock it away within the brain to enable them to focus on what’s going on in the moment.
The problem with that? No one teaches them how to unpack those compartments of the brain. However, keeping memories and emotions held at bay doesn’t work long-term. They begin to seep out of the compartment into present-day life. And when that happens, many turn to drugs or alcohol to help them cope.
This is on top of feelings of extreme loneliness due to being far from home, fatigue becoming a normal part of life, and spending month after month in a challenging environment. All these triggers play a part in our troops becoming vulnerable to substance abuse. In the beginning, they’re likely just hoping to forget it all for a while.
When trying to keep their mental health issues hidden, drugs can help them maintain an even keel.
Or so they think…
It’s a sinking ship
It’s a known fact that many veterans struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction.
In fact, the military’s alcohol policy is considered to be relatively lax. Drinking on leave has long been considered a way for the troops to “let go.”
The problem is that they aren’t.
Rather than cleansing themselves, they are apt to go overboard either drinking themselves into a stupor or unleashing their angst under the guise of demonstrating wild and sometimes dangerous behaviors. This type of “letting go” doesn’t relieve them of the stress they carry around but masks it instead.
Illicit drug use in the military is rising as well. It may be due in part to the fact that physicians frequently prescribe opioid pain medications for combat injuries. Once the patient discovers the “relief” associated with feelings of euphoria that these drugs induce, they may believe they have discovered their coping mechanism for the remainder of their time in the service.
These medications are highly addictive though. They fail to take that into account and for many, the discovery comes too late. They are engulfed by the need to take more… and more.
Studies show that misusing opioids and other drugs was uncommon in the lives of these enlisted men and women before recruitment.
When comparing drug use between the military and civilian populations, the misuse of prescription medication is markedly higher amongst military personnel. Only 1.8% of the civilian population misuses prescription medication compared to 10% of military members.
War is hell
Our military personnel subjects themselves willingly to the horrors of war. They do it to ensure that freedom prevails in this country and to establish it in foreign countries around the world.
In so doing, they are exposed to things that most of us in the civilian world can’t even imagine as reality.
Some of the causes of substance abuse in the military are:
- High incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder
- High incidence of mental health conditions left undealt with
- Combat exposure
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Chronic pain due to consistent strenuous activity as well as injuries
- Inability to cope with stress
It’s not likely that any of these factors are going away. However, perhaps the Navy regulation that stipulates that enlisted men and women can be penalized for seeking help for mental health issues or drug abuse and pop positive with drugs in their system should.