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September is National Recovery Month, an observance which promotes the benefits of prevention, treatment and recovery for mental and substance use disorders. It also celebrates people in recovery, lauds the contributions of treatment and service providers and promotes the message that recovery is possible, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, sponsors of the observance.

Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) recently held the training course, “The Psychology of Drug and Alcohol Abuse,” taught by Jenny Sexton, drug and alcohol preventive education coordinator for the Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are approximately 80,000 deaths attributable to excessive alcohol use each year in the United States, making excessive alcohol use the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death for the nation.

Sexton explained the difference between addiction and abuse. “Abuse is defined as the harmful use of a substance [such as alcohol] for mood-altering purposes,” she said. “Dependence is the compulsive need to use a substance in order to function at a normal level.”

The CDC affirms that some of the symptoms of dependency on alcohol, also known as alcoholism, are a strong craving for alcohol; continued use despite repeated physical, psychological, or interpersonal problems; and the inability to limit drinking.

Sexton added the average age of an individual’s first use of alcohol is 12, and because the human brain is still developing until age 25, drinking at a young age can have detrimental effects. “Drinking alcohol during this period of rapid growth and development (i.e., prior to or during puberty) may upset the critical hormonal balance necessary for normal development of organs, muscles, and bones,” according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“Drinking alcohol under the age of 15 for five to 15 consecutive weeks can cause alcoholism,” said Sexton. She also stated that while there is no single addiction gene, alcoholism is genetic.

“An individual with one parent who is an alcoholic has a 40 percent greater risk of developing alcoholism themselves,” said Sexton. “If both parents are alcoholics, that 40 percent greater risk jumps to 60 percent.”

Dr. Larry Grubb, a staff psychiatrist at WRNMMC, noted military members are at a higher risk of problems with alcohol than the general public.

“Almost half of active duty service members (47 percent) reported binge drinking in 2008,” said Grubb, and 20 percent of military personnel reported binge drinking every week in the past month; the rate was considerably higher (27 percent) among those with high combat exposure.

Most people usually use alcohol to help them deal with stressful situations such as issues with family, work, finances or legal difficulties, he added.

“Many people report that drinking makes them feel more confident or that it makes social interaction easier,” said Grubb.

So how do you know if you have a problem with alcohol?

According to Grubb, one of the first warning signs is repeatedly neglecting responsibilities at home, work, or school because of the drinking, and continuing to drink even though it is causing problems in the drinker’s relationships.

Avoid using alcohol in situations where it’s physically dangerous, such as driving, operating machinery and or mixing alcohol with prescription medications against doctor’s orders, he added.

“[Even] drinking to relax and relieve stress is a first sign of an alcohol problem,” said Grubb.

The medical effects of years of alcohol abuse and alcoholism sneak up on the unsuspecting drinker, going unnoticed until it is too late, according to Sexton.

“You can’t exactly tell that your liver is suffering from excessive alcohol consumption,” said Sexton, “and the earlier the onset of substance abuse, the more likely the progression is to become more serious.”

For those who suffer from alcoholism or alcohol abuse there is help. According to NCADD, it is estimated that as many as 20 million individuals and family members are living in recovery.

For more information, contact Sexton at the Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) at Walter Reed Bethesda at 301-295-8115 or 301-473-1538.

Also at Walter Reed Bethesda, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meets Mondays (except for the first Monday of the month), Wednesdays and Fridays from noon to 12:50 p.m., and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., in Building 8, Rm. 2230 (Chaplain’s Conference Room). For more information, call 301-503-1210.