WASHINGTON D.C. — Defense Department officials are developing research-based methods to curb substance abuse among service members, their families and veterans, a senior DOD medical official said, March 11.
Dr. Michael E. Kilpatrick, deputy director for force health protection and readiness programs in the office of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for force health protection and readiness, spoke as part of a congressional series on Capitol Hill.
The briefing was sponsored by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which supports research on substance abuse and associated mental health problems among active-duty members, their families and veterans.
Kilpatrick, who spent 25 years as a Navy physician, outlined some of the research that looks promising for those who battle substance abuse in addition to mental health issues. His years of research and clinical care made him realize that “the more we do, the more we need to do,” he said.
The doctor noted the major advances of saving lives with top-notch U.S. military medicine in war zones. “We’re doing a great job with those physical wounds,” he said, but he added that Defense Department officials want to focus on the invisible wounds of war and know much more needs to be done.
“We recognize there are tremendous stressors and going to war in itself is a stressor,” Kilpatrick said. “Not knowing what the outcome is going to be, not knowing exactly when you’ll be back or what’s happening to your loved ones while you’re gone are stressors.”
Studies and research have shown that the act of going to war, even without engaging in combat, is a tremendous stressor, he added.
Several programs are underway in DOD to help battle substance abuse and mental health issues and the Army and Marine Corps have begun resilience training for that reason, he said.
“We try to get service members to understand what their strengths are,” Kilpatrick said. “What did they grow up with? What were the strengths that got them to the Army or the Marine Corps? And how do they build on those strengths to develop even better coping skills to withstand the stressors that come with the military?”
To detect mental health and substance abuse problems, Kilpatrick said, every service member goes through a health assessment after deployment, followed by yearly assessments. The Army, he added, does health assessments in the combat theater every year.
“In each of those assessments, there are questions about mental health, about post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide ideation and depression,” Kilpatrick said, noting assessments also include questions about alcohol and tobacco use.
“We find a very high rate of people who respond that they think they’re having trouble with alcohol,” he said.
A presidential executive order requires DOD and the Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services departments to work together to provide mental health services, suicide prevention information and substance abuse treatment, Kilpatrick said. All the departments will operate on the same programs to treat mental health and substance abuse issues, with common language and nomenclature, he added.
“That way, there is a single network and not three or four independent systems,” he noted. “As we look at strategies over the next three to four years, we’ll look at how to improve. It’s been an exciting step forward.”