Breaking the silence: Erasing stigma of seeking help for substance-use disorders in military

Among many challenges we face in the military, substance use disorders are an all too common, distressing and — notably — underdiscussed reality. While the use of drugs and alcohol among veterans of the armed forces is a known issue, substance abuse among active-duty members is itself a significant and frequently overlooked problem.

Breaking this silence is paramount in ensuring the well-being of our service members. It’s time to dismantle the barriers that hinder seeking help and pave the way for a culture of understanding and support.

As a New Jersey Air National Guard clinical nurse and CEO of Recovery Centers of America at Raritan Bay, a substance-use disorder treatment facility serving patients in New Jersey, I am a firsthand witness to the profound impact substance-use disorders have on those who serve our country with unwavering dedication.

The military lifestyle itself presents unique challenges that can contribute to substance misuse. Deployment, combat exposure and the demanding nature of military service can exacerbate stress, anxiety and trauma, driving some individuals to turn to substances as a coping mechanism. Additionally, the hierarchical structure of the military may discourage open discussion about mental health issues, further perpetuating the unwarranted stigma surrounding addiction.

This stigma is deeply rooted in misconceptions and fear. There’s a pervasive belief that seeking help for addiction is a sign of weakness, a stain on one’s record of service. This fallacy is fueled by the fear of repercussions such as career stagnation, loss of security clearances or even discharge. Consequently, many service members opt to suffer in silence rather than risk the perceived consequences of seeking help.

Breaking free from the grip of addiction requires courage and resilience. However, the first step toward recovery often begins with seeking help. It’s essential to recognize that struggling with substance use disorder is not a reflection of one’s character or dedication to duty. Rather, it’s a medical condition that requires professional treatment and support.

Recognizing this unmet need, RCA at Raritan Bay in 2021 created a specialized evidence-based drug and alcohol addiction treatment program for New Jersey’s military service members — active and retired — and first responders. The RESCU program, which stands for “Recovering Emergency Service Community United,” was built in response to the difficulty those who rescue others encounter when their own lives require saving.

There are few U.S. addiction recovery centers with programs that address the profession-related obstacles veterans and responders face. RESCU has helped hundreds of patients find recovery since its inception, though we know so many more veterans and first responders are suffering and could benefit from a specialized treatment program.

With both outpatient and inpatient options, RESCU includes private group therapy sessions, peer support groups, specific programming for military families and individualized treatment led by a specially trained clinical team.

Need help?

New Jersey-based military members, both active and retired, seeking help for addiction are encouraged to contact the RESCU Program at 855-231-0325 or visit the website. All Recovery Centers of America locations admit new patients 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, with complimentary, discreet transportation and intervention services available.

Since anonymity within the community is critical to treatment and recovery, the program is committed to privacy. Patients join a tight-knit group of fellow military service members and recover alongside individuals who share similar life and professional experiences. It also addresses their unique issues: work-related traumatic events, drinking culture, mistrust of mental health professionals and warrior ethos, among other subjects.

Seeking help for addiction demonstrates strength, not weakness. It takes immense courage to confront one’s vulnerabilities and actively work towards healing. By seeking help, individuals not only reclaim control over their lives, but set a powerful example for their peers, challenging the stigma that surrounds addiction in the military.

Erasing that stigma also requires a concerted effort at all levels of command. Leaders must foster a culture of acceptance and support, where seeking help is viewed as a proactive step towards personal and professional growth, rather than a mark of shame.

I am proud to lead a life of service, from the patients I treat to the nation I help defend.

By challenging misconceptions, fostering a culture of acceptance and providing comprehensive support services, we can ensure that those who bravely serve our country receive the care and compassion they deserve. It’s time to break the silence and stand in solidarity with our military community on the path to recovery.

LeoDante Ognibene is CEO at Recovery Centers of America at Raritan Bay.