April is recognized as national Alcohol Awareness Month, a time for outreach and education about the dangers of alcoholism and the issues related to alcohol use. It also provides an opportunity to address the stigma surrounding treatment for alcoholism, and the Army’s efforts to combat it.
A March 4 tweet brought this issue to the forefront and sparked action. The tweet from an Army leader expressed concerns that an officer who needed help was told that if he self-admitted to the Substance Use Disorder Clinical Care, he would be deemed non-deployable. The leader questioned whether that result sends the right message. It caught the attention of Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, and over 90 people who shared their own experiences and concerns.
"As a CSM that just left a residential treatment facility for alcoholism, I identify with this young officer,” one person shared. “I knew I was spiraling, but I knew getting help would cause damage to my reputation. I finally self-referred and got treatment. A stigma still exists but I am glad I did it."
According to program manager Garland T. Coleman, of the Army Substance Abuse Program, the stigma associated with alcoholism is a challenge for many.
“I believe many commanders internalize, question and/ or hesitate when it comes to referring a Soldier, especially ‘a good Soldier,’ for evaluation because they think or feel that it will negatively impact that Soldier’s career when the truth is, intervention, such as an evaluation and treatment, serves as a wake-up call for many Soldiers,” Coleman said.
“I believe that some Soldiers do associate a stigma with alcoholism. The root cause may be the consequences associated with being identified as an alcohol abuser in the military; impacts to the longevity of their career, possibly administrative actions, and being viewed as not being fit and ready for duty by leaders, peers, and subordinates,” said Staff Sgt. Virginia M. White, Army National Guard drug testing coordinator NCOIC.
Policy updates in recent years are helping to address this problem. White shared that the Army’s efforts to end the stigma started with Army Directive 2019-12, Policy for Voluntary Alcohol-Related Behavioral Healthcare, which allows Soldiers to seek treatment on their own without command involvement as long as they do not meet criteria for mandatory enrollment/ referral.
“I interpret this policy as a move towards reducing the stigma that enables Soldiers to be proactive in seeking help before a serious incident warrants them to without putting limitations on their readiness,” said White.
In July 2020, updated guidance incorporated into Army Regulation 600-85 took a step even further. Dr. Charles Milliken, director of the Substance Use Disorder Clinical Care, who assisted in drafting the revision, said the changes reduce the stigma by not involving the legal authority or personnel system.
“It used to be if you went into a clinic for care for an alcohol problem the commander would have to be called and be a part of the treatment process. The record wasn’t just kept in medical channels, it also went into a personnel database. It made it so that commanders would hesitate to send a good Soldier over,” said Milliken. “Now by getting them treated early you are protecting a good Soldier’s chance to remain functional.”
White believes everyone plays a role in helping change attitudes around treatment for alcoholism.
“Leaders and Soldiers at all levels can help reduce stigma and change attitudes by ensuring availability to resources, prevention training, fostering an environment of trust, and leading by example,” said White.