A Comparative Study of Factors Contributing to Substance Use: Military vs. Civilian Youth

capstone

Military children experience a unique lifestyle within the military community that classify them as a special population. These unique experiences include: separation from the active duty parent during deployment, frequent relocation due to changes in military assignments, routine changes, increased responsibilities, and threat of death or injury to the service member in the family (Park, 2011). The influence of military culture undoubtedly impacts military children’s mental health, life satisfaction, and levels of self-efficacy. While these are deciding factors for all adolescents at risk for substance abuse, it is evident that there are additional stressors, unique to military children, that increase their likelihood to use substances over their civilian peers (Gilreath et al., 2013). Research identifying the potential military stressors experienced by military children can make connections between adolescent outcomes and substance use.

This research investigated the additional risk factors associated with military adolescent substance use as compared to their civilian peers in order to develop a better understanding of the unique risk factors that contribute to substance use among military youth versus non-military youth. Data gathered from this study could help in fostering protective factors associated with adolescent substance use within the military culture.

A concurrent mixed methods design utilized a cross-sectional online survey administered to adults (N=29) between the ages of 18 - 25 with a history of substance use during their adolescence (12 – 17 years old). Data was gathered surrounding demographics, substance use history, frequency of use, number of relocations, academic performance, familial history of substance use, mental health, and parental and social factors that contributed to their substance use during adolescence. Participants were gathered from the researcher’s prior connections to graduated DODEA students, as well as undergraduate and graduate students from Wright State University, Hawaii Pacific University, and other affiliated civilian personnel. The Mann-Whitney U Test was used to analyze and compare data between military (n=14) and civilian (n=15) participants.

This research found significant differences in both relocation and mental health scores between military and civilian participants. Scores signifying the impact relocation and mental health had on substance use for military participants, overall, was higher than their civilian peers. These findings suggest the importance of social connections amongst youth as a mitigating factor influencing substance use.  Additionally, it was found that parental absence provided military participants increased opportunity to engage in substance use in their adolescence. With one parent gone, family dynamics are likely to change within the home; resulting in military children gaining more independence and freedom to engage in risky behaviors. Also, military participants reported higher instances of bullying and peer pressure over their civilian peers, despite similar social support scores. It would seem that participants associated the level of social support they received in conjunction to their substance use engagement.

This study provides important insight into a variety of risk factors that contribute to substance use among both military and civilian youth. The purpose of this research was to develop a better understanding of the additional risk factors that contribute to substance use among military youth versus non-military youth. Data gathered from this study could help in fostering protective factors associated with adolescent substance use within the military culture. Protective factors that deter youth from turning to substance use would be beneficial for not only military families, but for the military community overall. Substance use among youth, in general, can cause public health problems and lead to increased maladaptive behaviors such as substance addiction, criminal activity, increased sexual activity, aggression, etc. Further research surrounding the key stressors that contribute to military youth substance use will strengthen and protect the military family and the communities they serve.