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Researchers identify the reasons for drinking in UK military personnel

A study, led by the University of Liverpool and King’s College London, has helped identify the reasons behind drinking in UK serving and ex-serving military personnel who report stress or emotional problems.

alcohol and military
10% of personnel in the UK Armed Forces meet the criteria for alcohol misuse, compared to just 3% of the UK general population.

Alcohol misuse is common in the United Kingdom (UK) Armed Forces and at a higher prevalence than the general population. Alcohol has historically been used in the UK Armed Forces to encourage bonding and to deal with difficult experiences. 10% of personnel in the UK Armed Forces meet the criteria for alcohol misuse, compared to just 3% of the UK general population.

Despite the high prevalence of alcohol misuse in this group, the reasons why people within the UK military drink have not been studied.

Published in Occupational Medicine, the study aimed to identify the reasons why UK military personnel drink and to explore what characteristics could explain the different reasons for drinking. They also investigated if the context of drinking, in terms of location and with whom, influenced whether military personnel met the criteria for alcohol misuse or binge drinking.

Researchers conducted telephone interviews with 707 serving and 572 ex-serving military personnel who had reported a stress or mental health problem in the last three years, making a total of 1,279 military personnel. The interview examined military personnel’s mental health, alcohol use and reasons for drinking.  

The majority of the sample were male (84%) and nearly one fifth (18%) of personnel met the criteria for alcohol misuse. Researchers found that 18% met the criteria for anxiety, 8% for depression and 8% for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Reasons for drinking were categorised as either drinking to cope, for example to escape your troubles or to forget your past; or drinking because of social pressure, for example to fit in or to be sociable.

The research showed that those who met the criteria for depression, anxiety and PTSD were more likely to drink to cope rather than because of social pressure. This suggests they may be drinking to deal with mental health symptoms.

These findings can inform the development of tailored alcohol interventions for this occupational group, by identifying individuals who use alcohol in a way that is more likely to become problematic– Professor Nicola Fear, King’s Centre for Military Health Research, King’s College London,

Military personnel who reported drinking to cope were more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol misuse and binge drinking. As were personnel who drink at home and/or alone.

The researchers highlighted that the findings reflect the reasons for drinking in military personnel who have a stress or emotional problems and may not be representative of the wider UK armed forces community.

Lead author, Dr Laura Goodwin, Psychological Sciences, University of Liverpool, said: ‘Our study identifies the need to better integrate mental health and substance use services for military personnel, who may be drinking to cope with an existing mental health problem.’

This research was funded by a grant from the Medical Research Council.

Alcohol misuse is alcohol consumption that puts you at risk for health, social or psychological problems. For the purposes of this study alcohol misuse is defined as a score above 10 on the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test – Consumption (AUDIT C) and binge drinking is defined as consumption of 6 or more units on one occasion.

Drinking motivations in UK serving and ex-serving military personnel’, by Irizar, P. et al was published in Occupational Medicine. DOI: 10.1093/occmed/kqaa003 

Based on a press release by University of Liverpool.