WASHINGTON — The army is increasing its staff of substance abuse counselors by about 30 percent to help the rising number of troops with alcohol problems.
Officials said Wednesday that they posted 130 new job openings this week in hopes of increasing staff to counsel soldiers at bases around the world from the current level of around 400.
"One of the largest challenges in maintaining health is addressing issues of substance abuse by our soldiers," Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said. Getting more qualified counselors to areas where there are staff shortfalls "is an issue that needs to be rectified as soon as possible."
The number of troops abusing alcohol has roughly doubled in the last five years as soldiers go through the stressful cycle of training, serving in the wars, readjusting to home life and then doing it all over again months later, Dr. Les McFarling, head of the army's substance program, said in an interview.
Some 13,000 soldiers were treated for substance abuse last year, all but about 1,900 for alcohol and the rest for drugs like marijuana and cocaine, McFarling said.
He said officials have found no direct link between the abuse and the number of deployments some soldiers have served. But "a typical thing for somebody coming back if they're having troubles adjusting or PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome), is to have a glass of wine before you try to go to sleep ... or two, or three," McFarling said. "It's a socially acceptable way of dealing with stress."
Though the army has been increasing staff for some years, finding more psychologists has been difficult and slow, partly due to a shortage of such professionals in American society in general.
While the army last year had some 300 staff to do the work, a study in March 2010 recommended it needed a total of some 560, McFarling said Wednesday.
Though some have been hired, officials wanted to move faster. Army Secretary John McHugh last week signed a directive that should help — authorizing additional professional groups allowed to work as as independent practitioners. Those are social workers, licensed marriage and family therapists and licensed professional counselors, who in the civilian sector can work independently, but in the military were limited to working with supervision.
The directive opens a nearly untapped pool of people to hire, McFarling said.
A recent study showed there is no difference in their ability to practice; and other branches of the services are expected to follow suit in adding those professionals to work independently, McFarling said.
"There's no way that anyone should look at this like and say 'well they couldn't get enough (psychologists) and so they're lowering the bar,'" he said. The army is merely recognizing what services are available if troops walked out the door and asked for the same kind of help in private society.
The new jobs will be permanent, full-time positions to provide active duty troops, their families, retirees and eligible civilian employees evaluation, treatment plans and counseling services.
Salaries range from about $50,000 to about $106,000 annually, and hired counselors will receive full Department of the Army civilian benefits. Additional incentives may include hiring, relocation, and retention bonuses, and help repaying student loans.
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