Stress Levels High Among Service Members, Some Red Flags Raised
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 9, 2004 Military deployments and other activities that keep service members away from home are upping stress levels among men and women in uniform, a new Defense Department survey reveals.
The 2002 Survey of Health Related Behaviors Among Military Personnel, released March 8, showed that about one-third of the service members who responded to the confidential survey feel stressed-out because of their work. Of these, 19 percent cited deployments and family separations as top stress sources.
In addition, more than 40 percent of the military women surveyed reported being under a "great deal" or "fairly large amount" of stress related to being a woman in the military.
The survey incorporated anonymous responses from 12,500 active-duty service members at 30 military installations. Respondents were selected randomly to provide a cross section of men and women in all pay grades of the active force worldwide, officials said.
The survey revealed that 85 percent of those questioned deal with their stress in positive ways. Many said they talk with others to get advice about issues troubling them, play sports or engage in a hobby. About half the men and 70 percent of the women said they pray to help them cope.
However, other respondents said they sometimes turn to less unhealthful outlets. Forty percent of the men and about half of the women use food and more than 25 percent use alcohol or cigarettes as a way of coping.
This year's survey showed the first increase in smoking service members in the last 20 years. One-third of the respondents said they smoke cigarettes, compared to 29.9 percent during the last survey, conducted in 1998. Officials said the rate is comparable to that among civilians.
Heavy drinking was also up among service members, from 15.4 percent in 1998 to 18.1 percent in 2002. Officials defined heavy drinking as consuming five or more drinks per occasion at least once a week.
Younger service members reported the heaviest alcohol use: 27 percent of those ages 18 to 25 acknowledged heavy alcohol use, almost double the rate among civilians in the same age group. Among service members 26 and older, the rate was 9 percent, comparable to that of civilians in their age group.
The survey revealed that illegal drug use among service member has remained significantly lower than in the general population, officials said. Just 3 percent of the survey respondents said they had used illegal drugs within the past 30 days. This compares to about 12 percent in the general population.
Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said the Defense Department is concerned about the increases in smoking and heavy alcohol use among its members but not necessarily surprised.
"These findings, along with indicators of stress and other similar mental health indicators obtained in this survey, are not entirely surprising given the military's role in worldwide events throughout the past two years," he said.
Winkenwerder noted new programs introduced since the survey was conducted or to be introduced soon are designed to address some red flags raised. "Military leaders and the military health system are committed to improve healthy behaviors and reduce avoidable stress," he said.
Despite reporting elevated stress levels, the survey revealed that most service members are happy with their work. An estimated 65 percent of the respondents said they were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" overall with their current work assignment. Airmen reported the highest satisfaction level, 72 percent, and soldiers the lowest, 60.9 percent.