This past year, several factors have contributed to life stressors for many. Events such as the global pandemic, the political and civic unrest across the country, and even natural disasters such as fires and hurricanes can trigger negative feelings and impact the five dimensions of personal readiness. Add to all of this the stress often felt during the winter months, and feelings like sadness and depression may appear, leading some to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like alcohol or non-clinical drugs.
“Many people are searching for some normalcy, stability, and outlet in the midst of searching for a light at the end of this tunnel we’ve been in the past 10 months,” said Staff Sgt. Virginia M. White, Army National Guard drug testing coordinator NCOIC. “It's very unfortunate that alcohol abuse and substance use is an outlet that some have chosen to employ and are unable to connect to the healthier outlets available to them such as spirituality, exercise, hobbies and Family.”
To ensure those healthier outlets are available, the Army Substance Abuse Program has adapted to the challenges caused by recent events to continue providing the support needed by Soldiers, Army Leaders, DA Civilians, and their Families.
One challenge presented by the pandemic includes conducting regular drug testing.
“The pandemic has seemed to cause problems in all areas, and drug testing was certainly not immune to it,” said Master Sgt. Cesar J. Garcia, ARD Deterrence/Drug Testing Program Noncommissioned Officer. “Last year about 1.6 million specimens were received. This year, it was only about 1.3 million. So, about a 300,000-specimen difference.”
The Army National Guard has experienced similar challenges with testing. “The pandemic has caused a significant decrease in our drug testing abilities due to cancelled or delayed drills and unavailability of our Soldiers while they meet the needs of their Federal and State missions,” said White, who oversees all drug testing coordinators, programs and metrics in the 54 states, territories and the District of Columbia. For ARNG, in fiscal year 2020, 23% less specimens were tested compared to fiscal year 2019. For alcohol-use, White shared “the prevention team has reported an increase in alcohol-related incidents and alcohol misuse as well.”
Another challenge has been conducting training for personnel required to attend Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Training due to a positive drug test result or if they self-referred.
Both Garcia and White see being creative and proactive as keys to meeting challenges posed by the pandemic while still helping those in need.
“With social distancing policies in place creating more of a challenge for our Soldiers, we have to be creative in how we are able to ensure these Soldiers have adequate access to these resources,” White said.
She encourages leaders, and the personnel offering resources, to understand that substance abuse is usually not an isolated issue, to meet the Soldier where they are, and understand how they got there. Garcia advises Soldiers, DA Civilians, and their Family members who are struggling to seek help immediately.
“Talk to a close friend or Family member. This could make getting help easier if someone is there for support. Go to www.armyresilience. army.mil and get educated on the effects of drugs and alcohol abuse and where to go to do a self-referral. Help is available and you don’t have to be alone in getting the help you need,” Garcia said.