Being an active member of the military or a veteran can be incredibly stressful. Deployment, time away from family and loved ones, combat, and social reintegration once discharged all contribute to a person’s stress levels. These factors can also significantly increase the risk of substance abuse and addiction.
The army reported that more than 45 percent of noncombat deaths from 2006 to 2009 was a result of alcohol or drug overdose. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has estimated that one in 10 people returning from combat in Iraq or Afghanistan struggle with drug or alcohol abuse.
Additionally, between 1995 and 2013, there was a more than 50 percent increase in outpatient veteran treatment for substance abuse and addiction. Considering the trauma and extremely stressful conditions that veterans have experienced, the correlation between active duty and addiction comes as no surprise. However, the impact that substance abuse can have on a veteran is significant.
Luckily, there are several treatment options available for veterans who are struggling with drug or alcohol abuse and addiction. With proper treatment, many veterans can overcome addiction as well as other mental health disorders and reclaim their lives.
Using Drugs And Alcohol While Active In The Military
Drug or alcohol consumption is a common pastime for active military members. While illicit drug use is currently lower than in previous years, opioid and alcohol use are prevalent aspects of the military lifestyle.
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Various factors contribute to drug or alcohol abuse in the United States military. Stressful schedules, warzones, combat exposure, and extended periods of downtime may all impact the prevalence of substance use.
The following are common drugs used by active military members and factors that may contribute to their use and abuse:
- Alcohol — Alcohol use has steadily increased over the past several years. In a study performed between 1998 and 2008, more than 20 percent of military members admitting to binge drinking every week in the month preceding the survey. Easy access to alcohol, exposure to combat, and deployments may all contribute to the prevalence of alcohol use and abuse in the military. Additionally, the customary use of alcohol on various occasions in the military also increases the risk of alcohol abuse.
- Opioids — Opioid use and abuse have been steadily increasing among military members. The ease of access and availability of opioids may contribute to the increased opioid consumption by active members.
- Illegal Drugs — While illicit drug use has declined significantly thanks to the implementation of random drug testing policies in the military, some members still abuse substances while active. The most common drugs used include cocaine, marijuana, and heroin.
Drug or alcohol abuse while in the military can not only result in problems while active but can also contribute to substance abuse and dependence after discharge. People who abused substances while in the military are much more likely to continue these behaviors as veterans.
Substance Use And Abuse After The Military
While substance abuse is a common concern among Americans, it is especially prevalent among veterans. There are a number of reasons why veterans may turn to drugs or alcohol upon returning home from active duty. These reasons may include pain and injuries from combat, trouble adjusting to civilian life, and mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Two of the most common drugs used upon return from active duty include prescription opioids and benzodiazepines. Prescription medications like benzodiazepines and opioids are often widely available from veteran rehabilitation centers. Regular use of these drugs can quickly lead to tolerance and dependence, which can, in turn, contribute to the development of addiction.
For those dealing with pain who cannot access drugs, obtaining pain medication from other veterans may be the only perceived option. In fact, a study done in 2011 found that nearly 17 percent of veterans shared their prescriptions with one another in an attempt to manage pain. Additionally, nearly 30 percent of veterans turn to alcohol or illicit drugs to deal with pain.
Additionally, many veterans view substance abuse as a way to cope with the traumas experienced during combat. Studies have shown that exposure to combat is related to increased binge drinking among military members. Veterans who binge drank during their service are much more likely to continue abusing alcohol upon their return home.
The transition back into civilian life is also a major factor that contributes to the high rates of substance abuse among veterans. Veterans can face a number of stressors and life changes upon returning home. These include finding a place to live and work, becoming part of a community outside of the military, and readjusting to day-to-day life and the stressors that often accompany it. After years of a highly structured lifestyle, civilian life can be overwhelming and challenging for many veterans.
Vets, PTSD, And Addiction: What’s The Relation?
Thousands of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as a result of their time at war. PTSD is a debilitating mental health condition that can impact every aspect of a person’s life. Veterans with PTSD are far more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with their condition.
There is a direct link between PTSD and addiction. Studies have shown that more than 20 percent of veterans with PTSD also suffer from a substance use disorder. Additionally, an estimated one in three veterans who attend addiction treatment have co-occurring PTSD.
PTSD can cause a number of debilitating symptoms, including daily anxiety and crippling flashbacks. Many individuals with PTSD use substances in an attempt to self-medicate and relieve the symptoms of this condition. While drugs or alcohol may provide temporary relief from PTSD, it only worsens the condition over time.
If left untreated, co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders can negatively affect a veteran’s life. Trouble sleeping, isolation, and elevated stress levels can all result from these conditions. These consequences can fuel the cycle of abuse, which can lead to worsening PTSD and addiction.
Suicide Rates Of Vets
Another potential consequence of untreated PTSD and addiction is the increased risk of suicide. Until recently, PTSD, as well as substance use disorders, were viewed as moral failings rather than the debilitating mental health conditions they are. This stigma has prevented and still prevents many veterans from seeking the help they need and deserve.
A new study performed by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that an estimated 20 veterans commit suicide every day in the United States. This alarming finding may be linked to a large number of veterans with PTSD and/or addiction who go untreated each year. In fact, the study found that nearly 70 percent of veterans who commit suicide did not seek treatment through VA services.
Consequences Of Veteran Substance Abuse And Addiction
Substance abuse among veterans can have a significant impact on their lives. Not only can it make life after combat more difficult, but addiction can cause new or worsening mental health and other health conditions.
A few of the many ways in which substance abuse and addiction can affect a veteran include:
- difficulty in personal and professional relationships
- trouble finding or holding a job
- new or worsening health conditions
- new or worsening mental health disorders
Additionally, family members and loved ones are also negatively impacted by a veteran’s substance abuse. Many individuals struggling with a substance use disorder isolate themselves from others. This can prevent loved ones from realizing that the individual needs help and prolong the cycle of addiction.
Treatment For Vets With Addiction
There are several treatment centers throughout the nation that provide specialized rehabilitation programs for veterans struggling with substance use disorders. Many veterans will need to participate in a program designed to treat co-occurring conditions due to the prevalence of PTSD and other mental health conditions among vets.
A medically supervised detox program as well as a residential treatment program will likely be recommended for veterans suffering from substance addiction. Aftercare programs may also be implemented once a person successfully completes inpatient treatment.
All of the Addiction Campuses’ treatment facilities offer dual diagnosis programs that can help veterans overcome addiction, PTSD, and other mental health disorders. To learn more about addiction treatment available for veterans, contact an Addiction Campuses’ treatment specialist today.
- Committee on Prevention, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Management of Substance Use Disorders in the U.S. Armed Forces — Understanding Substance Use Disorders in the Military
- Drug Policy Alliance — Healing a Broken System: Veterans and the War on Drugs
- National Institute on Drug Abuse — Substance Abuse in the Military
- JAMA — Association of Mental Health Disorders With Prescription Opioids and High-Risk Opioid Use in US Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan
- SAMHSA — Service Members, Veterans, and their Families Technical Assistance (SMVF TA) Center