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Brief alcohol interventions may decrease problem drinking in Veterans

August 20, 2014

Alcohol Misuse among Military Personnel & Veterans

Alcohol Misuse among Military Personnel & Veterans

For many Veterans, alcohol is a way to relax, blow off steam, or reconnect with old friends. But research suggests that Veterans are at a higher risk of alcohol misuse and alcohol-related problems, compared with the general population. Unfortunately only a small number of heavy-drinking Veterans receive any sort of professional help for alcohol misuse, putting them at greater risk of eventual alcohol dependence, work and relationship problems, and injury or illness.

"Even if they only drink once a week, if they're binge drinking and reaching a very high level of intoxication, their judgment will be impaired. They may drive, putting themselves or others at risk. They are at greater risk of accidents of all kinds. This is not to mention the interpersonal consequences and potential increase in physical aggression that comes with drinking," says Dr. Meghan E. McDevitt-Murphy, a research psychologist at the Memphis VA and an associate professor at the University of Memphis. According to McDevitt-Murphy, some 25 to 40 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans misuse alcohol.

McDevitt-Murphy and a team of her colleagues published a study in August 2014 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, outlining the effects of two brief alcohol interventions on OEF and OIF Veterans. The results were encouraging.

Study included 68 combat Veterans

The study included 68 combat Veterans who screened positive for hazardous drinking using the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test. More than half of the sample also met the criteria for PTSD.

Participants took part in a brief alcohol intervention specifically designed for OEF and OIF Veterans. After completing an assessment, the participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Both groups received a packet of personalized feedback about their alcohol use, deployment experiences, PTSD symptoms, and coping methods. Participants in one of the groups met with a research clinician who, using motivational interviewing techniques, reviewed the participants' personalized feedback results with them. In the other group, participants reviewed their personalized feedback on their own. After 30 minutes, a research assistant would come in to answer any questions.

"Non-judgmental feedback on the personal consequences and risk factors of their drinking, combined with education about motives for drinking, can have a beneficial effect," says McDevitt-Murphy. "We talked about the symptoms of posttraumatic stress and depression and how they can contribute to drinking. Sometimes just seeing where they stand in relation to the population at large can have an effect. Often heavy drinkers underestimate how much they drink. Letting them know they're in the 96th percentile among their peers, for example, can be powerful."

Intervention especially effective for those with PTSD

McDevitt-Murphy and her team conducted follow-ups in six weeks and again at six months. They found that both intervention methods were effective in reducing alcohol misuse, although participants who met the criteria for PTSD were particularly successful when exposed to motivational interviewing as well as the personalized feedback.

"Combat veterans have experienced so many stressors, beyond the trauma they may have encountered during their deployments. These stressors can make the transition to civilian life difficult, and if their preferred coping method is to have a few drinks, then this can really lead to negative consequences," says McDevitt-Murphy. "Oftentimes the Veterans we talk with already have some insight into the fact that drinking is only providing momentary relief for them. So when we offer a brief intervention like this, it may open them up to developing new ways to cope. We want to help these Veterans make better decisions about drinking and minimize harm."

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