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Walter Reed annual symposium focuses on substance use disorder

Man in lab coat sitting in front of a computer screen Dr. Christopher Spevak, SUDS organizer, conducts the third annual Substance Use Disorder Symposium virtually. (Photo by Sean Patten.)

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In September, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) held its annual Substance Use Disorder Symposium, better known as SUDS. Due to COVID-19 restrictions on gathering size and social distancing, the event was held virtually.

The symposium, developed and coordinated by the National Capital Region Pain Initiative, brought together speakers and attendees from all over the world to share insights and participate in workshops on how the Department of Defense is fighting substance use disorder, or SUD.

The course director, Dr. Christopher Spevak stressed the need for education for all members of the health care team on substance use disorders; especially in light of COVID-19. “We have been tracking the civilian data that shows an increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic,” said Spevak.

Speakers at the symposium shared their experience and insight into SUD. Jennifer Zumwalde, a recreational therapist with the Psychiatric Continuity Services clinic at WRNMMC, stated, “It was beneficial to gain from other people’s knowledge.”

Dr. Marthinus Zeeman, an Army veteran who served on a deployment in Afghanistan, spoke about his experience while serving in ‘a combat zone.’ While deployed, Zeeman found that he and other fellow soldiers all experienced significant stress levels, which led to compensation through different addictive behaviors.

Zumwalde, who works with active duty service members who have experienced extreme trauma of some kind, explained why this presentation was impactful. “I thought it was very powerful for [Dr. Zeeman] to talk about his firsthand knowledge with addiction. Having someone able to share their experience with others is a huge aspect used to encourage future patients to speak out and get help.”

While SUD is found to be a heritable disorder, anyone can become afflicted. Stress, a major contributing factor to SUD, can lead to an individual seeking instant relief through drug use. Stress could be related to combat, sexual assault, trauma, and other factors.

The symposium also shared measures that the DoD is taking to combat SUD. By utilizing drug tests, and being proactive about which substances are most abused, the DoD has seen a significant decrease in drug use amongst service members from it’s all time high during the Vietnam War era.

The DoD also shared two new campaigns to combat SUD head on, the “Own Your Limits” campaign and the “Too Much to Lose” campaign.

The “Own Your Limits” campaign focuses on responsible alcohol use. The campaign, launched in 2019, gives service members information to make responsible choices when drinking, as well as information friends and family can use to talk to service members about alcohol use concerns.

While the “Too Much to Lose” campaign focuses on the risks related to prescription and illicit drug use. By providing fact sheets, interactive quizzes, and information to those close to a service member who may be struggling with risky drug use, the campaign strives to lower use amongst service members.

While the most at risk group for SUD in the military are males between 18 and 24 years old, anyone can be at risk. And although there can be repercussions for illicit drug use by service members, the symposium stressed that there is always treatment for those who need it.

Enduring materials will be made available in the coming months on the NCRPI Enduring Materials website. More information on how to access the website is available by email.

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