Many studies have shown that alcohol abuse is common among active members of the military, but a new study led by Assistant Professor of Epidemiology Brandon Marshall shows that alcohol problems are common within the reserve population as well. Alcohol problems are especially prevalent among individuals who develop either depression or post-traumatic stress disorder upon returning from deployment, the study finds. The research paper is available in the online edition of the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence and will likely be published in print next month, Marshall said.
The study, which Marshall led as a post-doctoral student at Columbia, is part of a larger study investigating mental health within the Ohio Army National Guard.
Terry Keane, the director of the Behavioral Science Division of the National Center for PTSD, said Marshall's study is important because it was one of the first group of studies to examine alcohol abuse in the National Guard. The findings will help to highlight areas of focus for the promotion of "healthy lifestyles post-deployment," he said.
Marshall's team looked at a group of around 1,000 National Guard soldiers, more than 100 of whom screened positive for alcohol abuse after returning from deployment. Only 7 percent of soldiers without depression or PTSD abused alcohol, whereas nearly half of those who suffered from both disorders abused alcohol.
These results were surprising, Marshall said, because he originally hypothesized that people with depression or PTSD prior to deployment would have the highest risk of developing alcohol problems.
But the study revealed that those individuals had no elevated risk. Instead, the most vulnerable group included individuals who developed depression or PTSD after returning from deployment.
Marshall warned that more research must be done before any conclusions can be reached. He said it is possible that people with mental health problems may not have been deployed in the first place, so they may have been excluded from the sample. It is also possible that those individuals received more support and treatment that could have "buffered their risk" of developing alcohol problems.
Keane called this finding "anomalous" and said it will require replication in other samples. But in general, the study's findings did not surprise him, he said. "Alcohol use is very high, and it's probably exacerbated by experiences in war zones."
Another finding of Marshall's study is that married men developed alcohol abuse at a significantly lower rate - 8 percent - compared to those who were never married or had been divorced, 16 percent of whom developed alcohol problems. He attributed this trend to the additional emotional support marriage offers.
"Having people to reach out to is an important piece of the puzzle," Marshall said.
Marshall said his study points to the importance of improving access to mental health services for National Guard soldiers. Given that alcohol abuse and mental health problems occur together at such high rates, "integrated treatment interventions" could be effective, Marshall said.
In conducting the study, "what struck me was just the level of alcohol abuse," Marshall said. "Some people were clearly struggling" and turned to alcohol "even if they had never had alcohol problems in their past," he said.