Veterans and Substance Abuse

veterans walking into a war zone to show the commitment that often leads them to addiction

Table of Contents

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 a 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 many military personnel experiences.

The adrenaline rush felt throughout the movie while everyone struggles to survive and disarm explosives ends with the hero being 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 the search for help is becoming easier. Considered to be the main cause of 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 men-homelessness, suicidal thoughts and attempts, SUDs, PTSD, depression, and anxiety-women tend to experience these problems more severely 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 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 to 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 that 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 us 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 an 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?



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