Soldiers phone in for help with substance use

As the phone conversation continues, the man admits that he’s concerned about the health consequences of his drinking and how it impairs his thinking the morning after. But he’s not sure that he really wants to change. And if he decided to change, he worries that using treatment services offered by his employer could alert his supervisors to his heavy drinking and damage his career.

The caller is an active-duty soldier. And the call is typical for a UW School of Social Work study that helps active-duty military personnel who think that their substance use may be interfering with their lives, aren’t already in treatment and are uncertain about what to do.

Flickr, The U.S. Army

The Warrior Check-Up study provides free, confidential counseling that lets soldiers think about their experiences with substance use and, with the help of a counselor, think through what to do next. For soldiers who decide they want to decrease their substance use, counselors can help them find substance abuse services, including treatment programs, community mental health services, support groups and self-help resources.

It’s the first study to test the Warrior Check-Up telephone intervention with active-duty soldiers, the researchers said.

“The need is really great in this population, which is mainly young and male – a group that tends to have high substance use, anyway,” said Denise Walker, co-director of UW’s Innovative Programs Research Group.

“We drink,” many soldiers tell Walker’s research team when asked to characterize military culture.

Indeed, they do. One study showed that 27 percent of service members aged 18 to 25 drink heavily, compared with 15 percent of same-aged civilians. Their heavy use of alcohol and other drugs is likely spurred by prolonged and repeated separation from family and friends, pain from work-related injuries and stressful, hazardous work environments. Their problems tend to worsen when they return from a deployment.

“When they come home, everything pales in comparison to the adrenaline rush of being in a war zone, so much so that some are eager to be re-deployed. Substance abuse could be a part of trying to get back to that level of adrenaline,” Walker said.

For some, receiving treatment for problematic drinking or other drug use conflicts with a culture that stresses strength and self-reliance, she added. And using military treatment services can be worrisome. “Even if they’re experiencing a number of problematic consequences, many are concerned that seeking treatment will interfere with their career,” Walker said.

The UW study offers opportunities for military personnel who are ambivalent about change and wary of harming their careers. It’s confidential and even permits participants to remain anonymous. Walker said, “We’re not military and we make sure that soldiers understand that their talking with us does not get reported to military command.”

She and her research team are testing whether a substance abuse intervention administered over the phone can help service members resolve ambivalence and become ready to change their behavior.

“The value of this study for the military population is that it helps us with getting to early identification of alcohol and drug related problems before issues occur that may negatively impact a soldier’s career,” said Jolee Darnell, Army substance abuse program manager at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington.

The Warrior Check-Up intervention, developed by Walker and her UW colleagues, includes a series of phone calls with a counselor. During the calls, soldiers learn more about their substance use, think about how it affects their lives and what resources are available if they want to change how much they imbibe. The soldiers receive up to $175 for their participation.

The UW researchers are testing the intervention with active-duty military at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, with the idea that the intervention could be scaled-up and used by soldiers worldwide.

“If the intervention works, it could be easily disseminated because everything is done over the phone,” Walker said. Telemedicine – delivering health care from a distance – can be especially helpful to small, remote military posts around the world where it is hard to provide substance abuse counselors, she said.

The researchers have received 250 calls since the study began last fall, and they’re seeking more participants in the study (click here to learn more about volunteering).

Most of the calls are about alcohol, followed by callers who are concerned about their use of prescription painkillers. The researchers also get calls about a synthetic marijuana called Spice, marijuana and other drugs. And they had a burst of calls about bath salts, a powdery, synthetic stimulant which increases blood pressure and heart rate and causes agitation, hallucinations, paranoia and even death.

About 44 percent of the soldiers who call are under 25. Nine percent are women, about the same proportion who comprise the military. Most callers also show symptoms of PTSD.

“Many of the calls come from younger, lower ranking soldiers. Most have recently come back from a war zone,” said Thomas Walton, project director for the study. Many tell the UW counselors that they have been deployed several times by age 24.

And once they’re back home, homecoming celebrations can often turn “into a party that doesn’t stop and they don’t know where to turn,” Walton said.

The study is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. Walker and Walton encourage active-duty members of the military who might be interested in participating to call: (888) 685-DUTY (3889) or visit their website at