In 2017, Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation published a case study revealing that veterans are at particularly high risk for substance use disorders. The stress of military life, combat experiences, and trauma all increase the likelihood that veterans will struggle with substance abuse.
The National Center for PTSD reports that up to 27 percent of veterans who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have also been diagnosed with a substance use disorder (SUD). In these cases, those who have PTSD try to self-medicate to deal with its symptoms.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers many resources for veterans who need help. Many private rehab programs are also equipped to meet the unique needs of veterans.
Treatment Options For Veterans
Veterans who seek treatment can choose from a variety of options, such as:
- Assessment for drug or tobacco use
- Self-help groups
- Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
- Detoxification under a physician’s care and other withdrawal management services
- Family and marriage counseling
- Outpatient treatment
- Inpatient treatment
- Live-in (residential) care
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) states that treatment can focus on other external problems, such as mending relationships caused by drug use, depression, sleep issues, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The goals of treatment for veterans can include:
- Counseling couples and families to better understand drug use
- Finding outside support, such as peer support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
- Teaching veterans the skills necessary to mitigate the risk of relapse and better deal with triggers
- Ensuring that all clients have a clear motivation and vision for the changes they seek to make in their lives
The VA has also implemented alcohol screening in its entire system, per Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation.
Depending on the circumstances, veterans can expect to take part in therapy and MAT to increase their chances of success. Medications that may be used in treatment include:
- Smoking cessation tools. Veterans may use nicotine patches, lozenges, or gums to reduce cravings of nicotine and eventually cease smoking.
- Methadone. This is a well-known substitute for heroin and other opioids that can decrease cravings.
- Buprenorphine combined with naloxone. This is used to treat addiction to heroin and other opioids.
- Naltrexone. As stated by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, this medication cuts off the effects of heroin and other opioids. It can be used in people who misuse alcohol.
Specific Risks Among Veterans
Among veterans, young men are at an increased risk to develop substance abuse issues. Male veterans between the ages of 18 and 25 are more likely to misuse substances than civilian men.
Male veterans show higher incidences of substance use disorders than female veterans. Male veterans are diagnosed with alcohol use disorders at a rate of 10.5 percent and drug use disorders at a rate of 4.8 percent. Conversely, 4.8 percent of women veterans have alcohol use disorders, and 2.4 percent have drug use disorders.
Exposure to combat, deployment into areas of conflict, and difficulty integrating back into civilian life can all be sources of stress for veterans. These issues can all contribute to veterans turning to substances to ease stress, often prompting a cycle of self-medication that escalates to addiction.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says that veterans may face stigma and zero-tolerance policies, which discourage them from seeking help for substance abuse issues. Some active-duty members fear privacy and confidentiality won’t be respected if they get help.
In 1986, the military created a list of rules and regulations governing the misuse of substances, specifically in regard to alcohol. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation reports that not all policies are enforced equally, and heavy drinking is often encouraged in the military as a way to socialize or relieve stress.
The increased prescription of opioid medication to treat health issues in veterans, such as migraines and chronic pain, is becoming a major problem. Veterans may be dealing with serious injuries, and it’s easy to begin abusing prescribed painkillers. This may start by doubling a dose or mixing painkillers with alcohol. Before long, addiction can take hold.
Veterans are also likely to smoke tobacco at higher rates than civilians. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation found that veterans are just as likely to misuse unlawful drugs as civilians.
Despite the fact that veterans have access to care through VA medical centers, access to addiction treatment can be a problem for veterans who live in rural parts of the country.
The Role Of PTSD
Per the Mayo Clinic, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition triggered by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. Common symptoms of PTSD include reliving the moment, anxiety, and being unable to control thoughts about the episode.
PTSD is common among veterans due to combat experiences or sexual assault experienced while in the military. Per the VA, 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom suffer from PTSD.
PTSD can get in the way of normal functioning, and symptoms can last for months or years without adequate care. Symptoms are known to appear within a month of the event, but they may even occur years after the fact.
Substance abuse and PTSD are closely intertwined. If a veteran has PTSD, it is more likely that they will abuse substances in an effort to self-medicate the trauma. The presence of one disorder complicates the effects of the other.
Veterans who struggle with both PTSD and substance abuse need treatment programs that are equipped to treat co-occurring disorders. Both issues must be addressed simultaneously to ensure recovery on all fronts.
Resources For Veterans
Many government and nonprofit resources are available for veterans who need help for an alcohol or substance use disorder. These resources can help veterans find the drug treatment assistance they need.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Mental Health: You can search for information related to veterans’ resources online. The Mental Health division of the VA houses various programs that can help veterans going through a variety of issues.
- Women Veterans Call Center: Call (855) VA-WOMEN (829-6636) Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. (EST) and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (EST). The site has a chat function for people who prefer not to speak over the phone. The call is confidential. You can call for yourself or on behalf of someone else.
- Help for homeless veterans: Call 1-877-4AID-VET (442-3838) for assistance with housing, health care, and job resources.
- Caregiver support: Call (855) 260-3274. This helpline is available to people who care for a veteran. You can call to learn more about support that is available at a local VA Medical Center.
- National Center for PTSD: You can talk to a counselor online or call 1-800-273-8255. Providers can call the voicemail number to receive additional information at (802) 296-6300 or email [email protected]
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline: Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357). SAMHSA can refer you to a mental health or substance abuse treatment facility. You can also use their treatment services locator here.
- Research and clinical trials for mental health issues: The National Institutes of Health conducts various studies on mental health issues, and you may be able to be a part of these programs if you wish. The studies may not necessarily address substance use disorders, but many focus on PTSD.
- The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: This is available in the United States for people contemplating suicide. Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). If you press 1, you will be transferred to the Veterans Crisis Line. The line is staffed by trained counselors. You can also text 838255.
Access to educational materials: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) can mail you educational resources if you or a loved one may be suffering from a SUD or co-occurring mental health issues.