No matter our age, most of us will eventually encounter a traumatic event at some point in our lives. Some of us will walk away from it unscathed, while others will hold on to the incident for a long time. While most of us will recover over time, others will not. The event will consume them and cause an array of issues in their lives. Veterans are exposed to these horrific events regularly, and it’s no wonder why they’d self-medicate to avoid unpleasant memories. However, no matter how much one self-medicates, these memories will catch up eventually. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a potentially severe problem that, in many cases, requires professional help to overcome.
PTSD affects a large swath of the general population, with about 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women experiencing at least one trauma in their lives. Women are more likely to become victims of sexual assault or child sexual abuse, while men are prone to physical assaults, accidents, combat, or witnessing death or injury. PTSD can happen to anyone, and 12 million adults battle PTSD each year. However, this is only a small portion of those who experienced trauma. Eight percent of women will develop PTSD at some point in their lives, compared to four percent of men, data shows.
For U.S. veterans, these figures are much higher than the general population. When you serve this country, you’re exposed to various traumas. The war in which you served can also affect your risks based on the type of trauma endured. For example, training accidents, war zone deployment, and military sexual trauma can cause PTSD. The number of veterans with PTSD varies based on the service era.
For example, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) sees about 11 percent to 20 percent of veterans battling PTSD in a given year, with Enduring Freedom (OEF) witnessing about the same. The Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans experienced PTSD at the same clip of 12 percent, while 15 percent of Vietnam War veterans were diagnosed with PTSD at the time in the 1980s. One study found that 30 percent of veterans had PTSD in their lifetime.
These figures only highlight those who sought help and self-reported that they were battling PTSD. Many veterans likely never reached out to share that they had problems after the war, leading them to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to cope. Unfortunately, a large population of war veterans lives on the street, plagued by addiction and mental illness. Below, we’ll discuss how PTSD leads to self-medication and what can be done.
What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an often debilitating mental health disorder that stems from frightening, stressful, or traumatic events. PTSD can lead to flashbacks of the event, panic attacks, and severe anxiety. Certain circumstances can trigger these symptoms and place the individual right back in the traumatic event.
If you get into a car accident that leads to the development of PTSD, getting into a vehicle can trigger these feelings of anxiety and cause flashbacks. Nightmares and intrusive thoughts will ensure you continue reliving the event, which is a common part of the disorder. It’s challenging to overcome, but with help, it’s possible.
For veterans, their traumatic event could have been caused by their camp getting attacked. When they re-enter civilian life, the backfiring of an exhaust, fireworks, or any loud bang can trigger those memories of gunfire they took on during the attack. These memories carry on with them at all times and make them vulnerable to stress and self-medicating.
The high rate of co-occurrence between PTSD and substance abuse is startling. Experts have looked into the topic to gain a better understanding of how they can help.
Veterans and Self-Medicating
Veterans deal with what’s known as “re-experiencing symptoms,” which describes a repeated, unwanted recollection of the traumatic events they experienced. This intrusive form of thinking can range from memories to dreams. Unfortunately, they can be extremely vivid, almost as if they were right back in the moment. These are sometimes referred to as “flashbacks,” and they can be hard to handle.
For veterans, these intrusive thoughts can be dreams, memories, and flashbacks from their time in combat. The disturbing recollection of deaths or injuries often remains on their minds and intrudes on their thoughts. Some people’s PTSD is coupled with survivors’ guilt. Many of them witnessed the loss of their brother or sister and wonder why they are still alive while their loved one isn’t.
How else can you avoid thinking this way? Many have been conditioned to believe that reaching out for help is “weak,” and they want to overcome this battle alone. They’ve returned from war, but this unique battle within themselves is one that cannot be conquered alone. Unfortunately, some don’t realize this until it’s too late. Some veterans turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and numb their pain.
Substance use disorders (SUDs) commonly follow the development of PTSD, meaning that PTSD can increase the odds of developing a problem with drugs or alcohol. One theory about the relationship between PTSD and substance abuse is the desire a person has to escape or numb their PTSD symptoms, known as self-medication. Scientists have established a connection between certain PTSD and the types of substances used. Hyperarousal PTSD is connected with alcohol and marijuana use.
Researchers have found other connections between PTSD and substance use disorders, including the following:
- Using drugs or alcohol might increase the odds someone will develop a traumatic event, leading to the development of PTSD.
- Some people are genetically prone to developing PTSD and substance use disorders.
PTSD and Suicide
Although it may not seem like it, suicide is rare. However, that doesn’t take away from how tragic it is and the profound effect it can have on the person’s loved ones. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact number of suicides that occur because most suicides aren’t reported. Therefore, it’s hard to determine whether someone meant to die by suicide. For it to be recorded as suicide, examiners must be able to definitively say the individual meant to die this way. The way deaths are recorded has significantly changed over time.
An estimated 40,000 people take their lives each year in the United States, with men more likely than women to take their own lives. Those who battled PTSD are more likely to attempt suicide. Nearly 22 percent of those who were victims of rape also attempted suicide in their life. An estimated 46 percent of adolescent females who were victims of sexual abuse reported suicidal thoughts in the past three months.
Those diagnosed with PTSD are at a much higher risk of attempting suicide. Among people with a PTSD diagnosis, 27 percent attempted suicide, with 24 percent of military personnel with diagnosed PTSD admitting to suicidal thinking in the past year. The link between PTSD and suicide is real. If you’re having suicidal thoughts, you’re not alone. Please seek the help you need. You can call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-8255.
Treating PTSD With Substances Is Dangerous
Drugs and alcohol can have a profound effect on PTSD. In the beginning, it may appear as though you’re cured of the problem. That’s because you’re numbed by the substances you use. However, as time goes on and you become tolerant of drugs and alcohol, it won’t work its magic as it did at one point. This can lead to even more depression and cause serious problems in the long term, like an addiction.
Treating PTSD with substances can lead to the following:
- Legal problems
- Medical problems
- Relationships problems
- Suicide attempts
- Inpatient psychiatric hospitalization
Getting the Help You Need for PTSD
If you’re a veteran and feel alone, remember help is available. It’s OK to admit you have a problem and that you need help. This is the first step on the path to healing. We understand that you want to relieve your stress and minimize your symptoms, but there are other outlets you can use. Specialized treatment for PTSD and substance use disorders can restore the quality of your life and help you cope. While it’s not a magical switch that you can turn on and off, you will need to put work into your sobriety and healing.
With time, guidance, and medication, you can gain traction back in your life and move past these events. You must remind yourself that you are worthy, you do matter, and that life will get better. Once you accept that, you can move into the care that you need.