Service member’s hand holding a beer.

Understanding and Identifying Substance Use Disorders

Understanding and identifying a substance use problem, whether your own or that of a friend, can be the beginning of a better life. Learn how to identify the warning signs of substance use disorders and where to get help.

Alcohol use and prescription drug use

Substance use disorders occur when there is a recurrent use of a controlled substance, prescription medication, over-the-counter medication, or intoxicating substance to the extent that it has an adverse effect on performance, conduct, discipline or mission effectiveness.

Risk factors for substance use disorder include using drugs or alcohol to socialize or relax, and mental health conditions, such as depression, post-traumatic stress and anxiety.

Warning signs

A person can misuse drugs or alcohol gradually or over a short period of time. Some warning signs of substance use disorder include:

  • Decreased energy, loss of appetite
  • Unexplained injuries and falls
  • Denial of a substance use problem
  • Irritability, agitation, mood swings, anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating, memory lapses and blackouts
  • Financial difficulties due to spending money on alcohol or drugs
  • Trouble with the law, citations for driving under the influence, public intoxication, underage drinking, possession of drugs, assault, sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse or child neglect
  • Poor work performance, repeatedly calling in sick at work or chronic tardiness
  • Relationship problems, including physical abuse and domestic violence
  • Inattention to personal hygiene and dress
  • Spending more time in activities involving alcohol or drugs Any of these warning signs may have other causes, but a combination of several signs could mean a problem. Left untreated, excessive substance use can lead to serious medical problems, family conflicts, loss of friendships and problems at work.

Addictive behavior

Addiction to a self-destructive behavior can be similar to substance use disorder. It can interfere with your day-to-day life and comes with severe consequences. Some common types of addictive behavior include:

  • Codependency: You're unwilling or unable to leave an unhealthy relationship that's dangerous to your well-being.
  • Internet addiction: You spend so much time online that you neglect other responsibilities or real-life interactions.
  • Compulsive eating: Food becomes a way to cope with emotions and feelings, and you're unable to control what and how much you eat.
  • Compulsive gambling: You compulsively place bets, regardless of the financial consequences.
  • Sex addiction: Sexual activity becomes the primary focus of your life, to the detriment of your other responsibilities and relationships.
  • Workaholism: Work takes precedence over everything else in your life, including your health and loved ones.
  • Shopaholism: You compulsively buy things you don't need — or even necessarily want — as a way to achieve a temporary "high," despite the financial pressures.

Common red flags of addictive behavior include:

  • You can't think about anything else.
  • You lie or become defensive when others question your behavior.
  • You feel anxious or depressed when you stop the behavior.
  • You become isolated or withdrawn from family relationships and friendships.
  • You need to engage in the addictive behavior more often and at higher stakes.

Strategies to avoid substance use disorder

The best way to avoid substance use disorder is to recognize that a problem exists and address it. Be observant and proactive. Don’t wait until there is a significant problem in your life or in the life of someone you know. There are things you can do to seek help or provide it to someone:

  • Seek help from a supervisor
  • Talk to a mental health professional
  • Keep an open dialogue with service members
  • Promote healthy alternatives for coping with stress

Treatment and recovery

Most people who misuse alcohol or drugs need long-term support or professional help. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Depending on the type of addiction, there are different options for getting the help you need.

If a person is addicted to drugs or alcohol, treatment may include monitoring by a medical professional for signs of physical withdrawal. Most people who abuse alcohol and/or drugs need long-term support or professional help. Ask your doctor for a referral. You can also find support through:

To find a program near you, call the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information hotline at 800-729-6686. You may also read the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration's fact sheet on mutual support groups to learn more about 12-step programs and other self-help groups.

No matter what you're going through, there’s peace of mind in knowing that support is available whenever you need it. Getting help can be the beginning of returning to mission and family readiness and the launching point to a more productive and meaningful life.

For immediate help:

If you or someone you know is suicidal or in a state of crisis, you can contact the Military Crisis Line 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255 and Press 1. You can also start a conversation via online chat or text (838255).

Note: Military OneSource does not provide medical counseling services for issues such as depression, substance abuse, suicide prevention or post-traumatic stress disorder. This article is intended for informational purposes only. Military OneSource can provide referrals to your local military treatment facility, TRICARE or another appropriate resource.