The environment for military service members can vary depending on many factors, such as their branch of service, job specialty, location, and deployment status. Military service can be psychologically demanding and taxing for members and their mental health. Service members commonly struggle to balance their mental and physical health with having constant exposure to traumatic, stressful situations. The use of prescription drugs in the military is prevalent due to the high frequency of physical injuries, mental health issues, and the strain of their duties.
Prescription Drugs and Military Service Members
Prescription drugs are commonly prescribed in the military for several reasons—physical injuries in the military result from training, combat, or other service duties. Painkillers—hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, codeine—are addictive opioids prescribed to relieve the pain from their injuries. The misuse of prescription opioids is foreseeable because of their desirable, euphoric, and relaxing effect. In such a high-stress, demanding environment, service members look to relieve their pain quickly and efficiently.
Military members may face many unique stressors and challenges that can impact their mental health, such as exposure to combat, frequent deployments, high levels of responsibility and pressure, and long periods of separation from family and friends. Accessing healthcare in the military can be challenging for service members—which is why drugs are often prescribed for mental health maintenance. Antidepressants—Citalopram (Celexa), Escitalopram (Lexapro), Sertraline (Zoloft), Fluoxetine (Prozac)—are prescribed for service members struggling with major depressive disorder (MDD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). While antidepressants are not typically addictive, users often physically depend on their effects.
How Prescription Drugs Affect Military Personnel
Military service members are provided with various treatment options through military resources for psychotherapy, prescribed medications, support groups, and addiction treatment programs. Due to the stigma surrounding mental health and treatment for military personnel, active-duty service members (ADSMs) often don’t speak up about their struggles. Prescription drugs are considered a more conservative option for treating mental health and physical pain.
Military service members experience a wide range of side effects from using prescription drugs—good and evil. While prescription drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and prescribed by healthcare professionals, this doesn’t necessarily label them as safe or non-addictive substances.
1. Manages Their Pain
Most military branches require physical performance, making it incredibly challenging for service members with injuries or chronic pain. Military personnel receives prescription opioids to alleviate their physical pain and mitigate the side effects of their injuries. Working in a physically-demanding environment requires physical strength and capability. Painkillers help service members endure their injuries or side effects and symptoms to help them perform better. If an injury is severe and requires extended prescription opioid use, it isn’t uncommon for a service member to develop a dependence on it.
2. Improves Mental Health
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are two types of antidepressants that act on neurotransmitters—chemicals in the brain—to improve and maintain mental health. SSRIs work to boost serotonin levels, whereas SNRIs increase serotonin and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that emulates feelings of happiness, satisfaction, optimism, and desire. Norepinephrine (noradrenaline) is a neurotransmitter and a hormone that plays a vital role in the body’s fight-or-flight response—supplying the body with bursts of energy. Military service members frequently receive prescriptions for SSRIs and SNRIs to help treat depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, chronic pain, etc.
The mental awareness required from military personnel can be debilitating and dreadful. The objective of antidepressants is to increase dopamine and serotonin levels to provide service members with a more positive and focused outlook on their job and lives.
3. Side Effects
The side effects of prescription drugs, specifically painkillers and antidepressants, vary as they are two distinct classes of medications. The severity and type of side effects experienced by prescription opioids depend on the medication. Painkillers’ most common side effects are drowsiness, relaxation, lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting, and respiratory depression. The side effects of SSRIs and SNRIs may include fatigue, feeling agitated or anxious, loss of appetite, weight gain, and sexual dysfunction. Painkillers and antidepressants both have the potential for dependence or addiction—especially if a service member has been taking a medication for an extended period.
4. Risk of Addiction
Military healthcare professionals wrote approximately 3.8 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2009, more than quadrupling the number of prescription opioids written in 2001. The risk of prescription drug addiction carries weight for many military service members and veterans. With limited access to healthcare and mental health treatments, prescription drug use becomes a standard for alleviating mental and physical pain for the military community. Prescription opioids, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are typically viewed as a low-stress, quick and easy fix for pain and discomfort. These medications help keep service members on their feet all day and help them rest at the end—this factor becomes very addicting, even after their injury or illness has healed.
If dependence has developed, an addiction may soon follow if left untreated for too long. When someone misuses a prescription drug and develops a strong dependency after using it for so long, it’s not as simple as stopping the medication. When coming off a strong medication such as a prescription opioid or SSRI, the user must wean off it progressively to avoid severe withdrawal symptoms. The withdrawal process can be emotional, debilitating, and particularly uncomfortable. The more significant a dependence on a substance, the more powerful the withdrawal symptoms are. Someone with an increasingly high dependence on medication should receive medical treatment and observation during their withdrawal process.
- Everyday Health, 2023. “What Is Norepinephrine?“
- National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2021. “Prescription Opioids Drug Facts.”
- Medical News Today, 2020. “What to know about respiratory depression.”
- Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, 2013. “Substance Use Disorders in the U.S. Armed Forces.”
- American Addiction Centers, 2023. “Drug Withdrawal Symptoms, Timelines, and Treatment.”