Medically Reviewed By:
Dr. Patricia Sullivan MD MPH on 8/30/2021
Substance Use Disorder (SUD) has spread over the entire nation. One of the saddest is SUDs have impacted many Veterans, men, and women, who gave some and saw many give all.
Many of our Heroes, who have given us our freedom, are in dire need of help with this destructive disease. What will help our Heroes? Let us look at SUD prevalence, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), treatment challenges, and possible screening to help them appropriately.
To learn about available resources for veterans seeking addiction treatment please give us a call at (888) 906-0952.
- The Statistics: Veterans Are at Increased Risk of Addiction
- Substance Abuse Disorder (SUD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- The Addiction-Related Stigma Our Veterans Face
- The Challenges of Treatment for Veterans
- The Wounds our Veterans Carry
- Veteran Women Facing Addiction
- Treatment Outcomes for Veterans With Addictions
- Find Help: A Message to Veterans Experiencing Addiction
A Veteran shares his personal story about his struggle with overcoming addiction. Today he lives a happy and drug-free life helping others escape from the grasp of addiction
The Statistics: Veterans Are at Increased Risk of Addiction
Overall, in the general population, 52 percent of males and 28 percent of females with PTSD suffer from a potential lifetime of struggle with SUDs. Military member numbers increase greatly.
In a survey was completed by the National Comorbidity Institute, and drug abuse, or SUDs, are found in 35 percent of men and 27 percent of women. Showing when a person, particularly a veteran, has a dual diagnosis (co-occurring disorder), the patient needs integrative care.
Treating one without the other, such as PTSD and SUD, puts a temporary band-aid on a volatile situation. Both issues are symptoms. What is needed is to find the root of the problem and formulate a solution to help the veterans move on to have happy, healthy, productive lives.
Substance Use Disorder (SUD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
SUD, also known as a drug use disorder (including alcohol), is the persistent use of drugs (including alcohol) despite substantial harm and adverse consequences.
PTSD is a condition in which an individual experiences tremendous stress or anxiety after witnessing or being engaged in a traumatic event, both defined by Foundation Recovery Network.
The two together, or a combination of other mental and drug disorders, are called a Dual Diagnosis.
Foundation Recovery Network also states some of the additional serious disorders may be depression, attention deficit (ADD), chronic pain, and chronic illnesses such as diabetes, liver disease, and high blood pressure.
SUDs with a Dual Diagnosis of PTSD are a significant issue for our military veterans and have many harmful effects.
Unfortunately, according to an article published in the journal Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, the SUDs among veterans continue to rise. With this rise, other negative correlations are beginning to become apparent. These include medical issues, psychiatric disorders (PTSD), difficulties with home and work, and an increase in suicides.
The most prevalent types of SUDs among men and women veterans are episodes of heavy drinking and smoking.
According to an article published in the journal Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, several stressors specific to military personnel include deployment, combat exposure, and reintegration challenges.
PTSD is also prevalent with most veterans with a SUD due to the same stressors.
Although alcohol is the drug most common, opioids and others are on the rise as veterans diagnosed with PTSD and other mental illnesses are more likely to receive a prescription for one. All of this increases the potential for violence, poor health, and mortality.
The Addiction Stigma the Our Veterans Face
For many veterans, stigmas in the military associated with SUDs and mental illness create an immense vacuum where admission to having one is almost forbidden. It is weak to admit that having these issues is just one of the common statements. Denial leaves many veterans suffering in silence.
A majority of our veterans with PTSD have a SUD as well. According to the National Center for PTSD, in the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, 74% of Vietnam Veterans have PTSD AND have a SUD. A study on veterans from Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn showed 63% had SUD and PTSD.
However, as of 2012, the National Center for PTSD, still only 32% of veterans of these wars, men, and women, have chosen to accept help through the VA, mostly due to these stigmas.
Addiction Treatment Challenges for Veterans
Not only do stigmas keep our veterans from treatment, but there are times at some Veteran’s Affairs (VA) where the wait is extremely long, better care can be found in the private medical sector, or the treatment is not preferred. Another challenge is location.
For veterans in rural areas, VA treatment is way too far or nonexistent altogether. The private sector, although with a financial cost, proves to be closer and better suited.
The journal Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation state 41% of veterans accessing care are rural. Again, access to care is limited, VA Medical Centers are nowhere to be found, travel burdens, and lack of social interaction to feel comfortable when they get there.
The more the distance and the older the veteran, the bigger the challenges. Greater attention must be paid to identifying effective, evidence-based treatment. Evidence-based treatment is a critical need!
The Wounds our Veterans Carry
Physical injuries are frequent issues experienced by veterans. The strain that war places on people physically exceeds what most people experience. Injuries are often grounds for a return home, which means leaving one’s comrades behind.
Minor or moderate injuries may be covered up and managed with pain medication instead of requiring more extensive rehabilitation. Major injuries mean automatic and typically permanent retirement from active duty.
Traumatic Brain Injury and polytrauma conditions translate to continued distress even long after returning home. Narcotics and alcohol are some of the more commonly abused substances that turn into major addictions for veterans.
Chronic pain has long been erroneously treated with narcotics like Oxycontin and hydrocodone. Narcotic pain medications are now understood not to work long term, plus they create entirely new problems for those who become addicted.
Whatever the severity of the injury, the reliance on pain medication and other substances to manage symptoms causes many veterans to develop addictions.
Grief and the Veteran Experience
The stress of war almost inevitably creates psychological distress for those who serve in the military. The psychological distress of the experiences coupled with such issues as Military Sexual Trauma or survivor’s guilt cause overload for the individual.
Those who develop psychological conditions such as PTSD are in no way weak. These problems can happen to anyone, including those who never served in the military.
Grief and trauma developed during and in the aftermath of war often turn into substance abuse. The severity of psychological distress experienced by our country’s veterans often translates into substance abuse issues.
Again, this doesn’t mean that our veterans are weak or defective, but instead that our society needs to focus on and promote healthier ways of coping with stress.
Substances ease psychological distress in the short term; however, they dramatically amplify the overall suffering of the individual in the long term.
Alcohol and other drugs create the sensation of pleasure and relief. Still, they can cause an unstable neural state and, therefore, an increase in such distressing symptoms as anxiety, pain, depression, fatigue, and more.
Desperation leads people to abuse substances to feel better, but those same substances make the situation worse.
If no other coping skills are utilized, the individual may quickly find him or herself trapped in a vicious cycle of using and needing more.
Adjusting to Civilian Life
The trauma of war is a stressful endeavor, to say the least, but returning home and adjusting to civilian life is, itself, stressful. Movies, such as The Hurt Locker, have illustrated the strain that much military personnel experiences.
The adrenaline rush felt throughout the movie while everyone struggles to survive and disarm explosive ends with the hero overwhelmed by the number of choices in the grocery store cereal aisle.
Returning home means a new routine, new rules, new people, and people who do not understand what those who serve in the military go through. Additionally, civilians are often unaware of how much they do not understand military service, which can be more than mildly annoying.
Feelings of instability, exposure, a lack of structure, and camaraderie lead many people to feel unbalanced, isolated, and lonely. The change can be too much for some.
The increase in freedom and access to substances, like alcohol and drugs, can be a toxic combination for some veterans. Throw in the increased physical and psychological symptoms that many experiences, and it is no wonder many returning veterans develop substance use disorders.
Veteran Women Facing Addiction
The number of women veterans entering treatment for SUDs is on the rise. A rise in veteran women becoming addicted can be attributed to several reasons. As women are more accepted in the military, they can speak freely, and search for help is becoming easier. Considered to be the main cause is the fastest-growing subset of U.S. Veterans is women.
Servicewomen experience unique struggles while serving their country. Although they experience many of the same things as the men-homelessness, suicidal thoughts and attempts, SUDs, PTSD, depression, and anxiety-women tend to experience these problems more severe than men and with less support.
According to experts, female veterans are more likely to have mental health issues, SUDs, and musculoskeletal issues than male veterans.
Female veterans who struggle with SUDs have high rates of other disorders, called co-occurring disorders, along with other problems.
The problems include trauma, primarily sexual and domestic violence, mental health issues including PTSD, and medical issues like cardiovascular disease.
experts states women in the military, active or veteran, are more likely to experience traumatic events such as rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic violence.
Female veterans who have a prevalence of traumatic histories are between 81 and 93%. PTSD is present before the military experiences occur and exacerbate the already challenging effects of PTSD.
PTSD Symptoms Women vs. Men
Women veterans are more likely to be jumpy, lack emotions, and have avoidance issues. They are more likely to feel depressed and anxious, while men with PTSD generally have more alcohol and drug issues.
Both men and women veterans with PTSD may have a higher rate of physical health problems, says Recovery First. Although there are many differences, some similarities exist as well.
Women veterans are five times more likely to attempt and complete suicide than non-veteran women and men. Unfortunately, Women Veterans Health Care says this number is on the rise. Those struggling with SUDs, like any other group, are at greater risk of attempting and completing suicide.
Firearms are more accessible by female veterans as well. Easy access and familiarity with weapons make attempted and completed suicide more easily attainable. Firearms were used by 40.5% of women veterans, with only 31.1% of male veterans.
Treatment for Women
Female active duty and veterans alike need more resources than are available currently. Better mental and physical health services and better treatment plans are needed.
Stress, previous trauma, and separation from family bring the female military members, for this purpose veterans, to a higher risk of suffering from PTSD, depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and other severe problems all military members face.
Although the VA has many specific services for female veterans now, it is just a start. Facilities treating all these issues have programs specifically for the challenges of veterans, but female-specific programs need to be created.
Women Veterans Health Care states the VA knows the women veterans have special needs and are ready to address those. But are they really? Constant awareness needs to be brought forth to protect and help all our veterans, but more work needs to be done on the specific needs of female veterans.
To survive, women veterans MUST be supported by their communities, families, and fellow veterans-both male and female. They need more help to overcome SUDs, PTSD, and co-occurring problems.
Without more progress, the female veterans will have to continue finding support, trouble fitting in, and a sense of loneliness the male veterans do not have to deal with.
Treatment Outcomes for Veterans With Addictions
The outcome of not being treated has led to many military veterans with poorer treatment outcomes, additional psychiatric problems, and more functional problems, including social, financial, legal, and medical.
More work must be done to protect our suffering veterans who feel they must do so in silence. How do we, as Americans-veteran or not, help those in so much need? We work together to eliminate the stigmas and reassure our Heroes-they have taken care of all of us-let we all take care of you.
A Message to Veterans Experiencing Addiction
You are not alone in this struggle. We know that the situation feels desperate and hopeless; however, it is far from being insurmountable.
Veterans who have PTSD, chronic pain, grief, substance abuse, and any other ailment, whether it be from experiences of war or the home front, have numerous options. Many people who have experienced the pain you feel are ready and willing to help you get back to living and loving life.
Addiction treatment centers equipped to handle co-occurring disorders are expertly trained to help those with trauma, PTSD, depression, or other mental health issues.
Many treatment centers also offer programs for those with chronic pain issues, as removing narcotic pain medication does not necessarily mean an end to suffering.
If you are entertaining the idea of getting sober but are not certain if a treatment center is right for you, the Angel Initiative allows people to surrender illegal substances to the police without any repercussions.
Whatever your particular issues, many people and treatment centers can help you.
No matter how desperate the situation may seem to you now, remember that many have been where you are and fully recovered, often discovering a life far better than ever experienced before.
Reach out and get the help you deserve now. We are a business that values our veterans, and we are ready to help you.
Hope must be instilled in our Heroes. It is time for all Americans to stand up and help in any way they can. The freedoms of this country would not be if it were not for them.
First, heavy alcohol consumption has been a cultural norm for decades as stress relief, socializing, and recreation among military members. A way must be found to change the norm. Next, new procedures and new treatments need to be made.
Some progress is being made, although it is slow, by offering Telemental Health (TMH), meeting over the phone or computer, which offers an option to our Heroes in rural areas. TMH is proving to be an even better option for all veterans as stigmas are not as evident as it is all from home.
According to the journal Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, veterans would be more than willing to suggest TMH to other veterans because they feel safe and less subjected to the stigma associated with mental illness and SUDs. Challenges still being worked on are connectivity issues and formal ways to ensure veterans’ safety and continued sobriety.
The National Center for PTSD also is working on co-occurring PTSD and SUD treatment improvements for our veterans. The most promising currently are working at simultaneous treatment.
The two at the forefront are Concurrent Treatment of PTSD and Substance Use Disorders Using Prolonged Exposure (COPE) and Seeking Safety. Psychotherapy focused on improving coping skills without the emphasis on the trauma. Thus far, COPE is favored.
As the VA begins screening for these issues more positively, more ideas are being tried. If, as a nation, we continue to love our Heroes, they will have the confidence to seek help without the worry of stigmas, retribution from the military, and fear of letting down their loved ones.
When interacting with our Heroes, remember…if it was not for them, where would you be, and what would you have?