WASHINGTON — With wars that have gone on for almost a decade, the Army has more soldiers with substance-abuse problems than it can handle and is trying to expedite hiring counselors to help bring the problem under control.
The Army is aggressively seeking to add 130 substance-abuse counselors to its rosters by Oct. 1 to address the increasing number of soldiers seeking substance-abuse treatment, officials said last month.
“One of the largest challenges in maintaining health is addressing issues of substance abuse by our soldiers. The qualified ASAP (Army Substance Abuse Program) counselors at the installation level is an issue that needs to be rectified as soon as possible,” U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said in a statement last month.
Les McFarling, PhD, director for the Army Center for Substance Abuse Programs, said the shortage of counselors became clear because of the increasing number of soldiers coming to Army clinics seeking substance-abuse treatment — mostly for alcohol.
A March 2010 analysis found the Army needed 562 counselors. At that time, only about 300 counselors were on board, but that number has increased to more than 400. With the addition of the 130 counselors being sought, patient capacity could be increased by about 4,000 patients, he said.
“It has been a struggle for us to get counselors,” McFarling said. “There is a shortage of mental-health and substance-abuse counselors nationwide, so we are competing with everyone else.”
McFarling said a little more than 11,000 of the 13,000 soldiers are seeking treatment from ASAP for alcohol problems. The remaining 1,900 soldiers were enrolled for abuse of drugs such as marijuana and cocaine.
Without enough providers, soldiers have long waits to see substance-abuse counselors, said McFarling, adding, “That obviously is not the kind of care we wanted to offer soldiers, so we needed to take corrective action to get counselors on board.”
Studies suggest that alcohol-use problems continue to be prevalent in the military. The Survey of Health Related Behaviors Among Military Personnel in 2008 — the last time the survey was conducted — included 28,546 military personnel and found that military personnel ages 18 to 25 showed significantly higher rates of heavy drinking (26%) than did civilians (16%).
That report also indicated that heavy alcohol use among military personnel from 1998 to 2008 increased significantly (15% to 20%), although it was similar to the 21% when the survey began in 1980. That suggests that military efforts to reduce rates of heavy drinking “have not been successful overall,” according to the survey authors.