In a recent survey, 24 percent of all troops said they smoke, 12.8 percent reported smokeless tobacco use and about a third said they binge drink, with the Marine Corps reporting the highest rate of binge drinking, 48.6 percent. The Air Force had the lowest incidence, 22.9 percent. (AFP)
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A new worldwide survey of active-duty troops shows that they are engaging in harmful behaviors less than they did in 2008, with incidents of binge drinking, smoking, illegal drug use and suicide attempts on the decline.
But troops continue to show high rates of overall stress, with those who engaged in heavy combat reporting the highest levels of stress and related vices, including drinking and prescription drug use.
The 2011 Department of Defense Survey of Health-Related Behaviors Among Active-Duty Military Personnel was conducted electronically in 2011 and received responses from 39,877 personnel, including Coast Guard members.
The full report has not been released to the public. A copy of the executive summary was obtained Monday by Military Times.
Nearly 8 percent of active-duty personnel who deployed for more than 18 months since Sept. 11, 2001, reported symptoms of severe post-traumatic stress, down from 11 percent in 2008. But the percentage of troops expressing extreme anxiety has risen, from 14 percent in 2008 to 16.7 percent in 2011. Anger management problems are up as well, from 7.3 percent to 10 percent.
The percentage of service members who attempted suicide has dropped, from 2.2 percent in 2008 to 1.3 percent in 2011. In 2011, nearly 8 percent of troops said they thought about suicide since joining the military and about 4 percent considered it in the past year.
To combat the rising rate of suicide among military personnel, the services have launched numerous prevention programs and initiatives to reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment.
But the survey showed that more than almost 38 percent of respondents still think getting help for mental health conditions will damage their career, with the Navy reporting the highest rates of stigma associated with behavioral health treatment at 42.1 percent.
The survey also showed that the stigma is not unfounded: For those who did seek help, 21.3 percent felt it damaged their career, with the Marine Corps reporting the highest rate, 26.2 percent, and the Navy second, with 24.3 percent.
If the survey is any indication, campaigns to discourage prescription drug abuse as well as new testing procedures may be paying off.
About a quarter of troops said they use prescription drugs but only 1.3 percent said they have misused them in the past year. In 2008, that figure was 2 percent.
Of the misuse, steroids and stimulants were the most commonly abused medications.
Regarding other unhealthy habits, 24 percent of all troops said they smoke, 12.8 percent reported smokeless tobacco use and about a third binge drink, with the Marine Corps reporting the highest rate of binge drinking, 48.6 percent. The Air Force had the lowest incidence, 22.9 percent.
Stress continues to be a major concern for military personnel, according to the survey, with troops facing both work and personal concerns. Of work-related stress, 42 percent of troops said being away from family and friends was their biggest stressor, while 41.5 percent reported stress about the high operations tempo. The most prevalent personal stressors were money concerns and worries about family members' health.
Assault also is an ongoing problem, according to the survey results. A quarter of troops said they'd been physically or sexually abused in their lifetimes, with more than 21 percent of women saying they'd been victims of unwanted sexual contact since joining the military. Of those, nearly 30 percent of the unwanted contact was reported by Marines.
Women also continue to find their gender to be a source of stress. More than half of women said they were stressed simply because they are women serving in the military, about the same amount that reported gender-related stress in 2008.
The Defense Department also continues to wage the battle of the bulge, although the percentage of troops who said they had been classified as obese remained the same in 2008 and 2011, 13 percent.
The number of troops who are considered to be of healthy weight has declined, from 40 percent to 34.7 percent, based on a body mass index of 25, but that remains above the civilian population's figure of 30.8 percent.
And troops report exercising at nearly double the rate of civilians: 75 percent said they'd engaged in moderate or vigorous exercise within the past 30 days.
The survey noted that military personnel have lower rates of obesity and higher rates of healthy weight, physical activity and beneficial behaviors such as wearing their seatbelts and using motorcycle helmets. Still, DoD falls short in three of eight health objectives — cigarette use, smokeless tobacco and alcohol use outlined in “Healthy People 2020,” a 10-year federal initiative to improve the overall health of the country.