How Addiction Impacts Veterans and Members of the Armed Forces

Addiction is a disease that can affect anyone. Drugs and alcohol are designed to activate receptors in the brain that trigger cravings and withdrawal, and no one has a brain that is immune to these effects. However, certain factors can increase a person’s risk of taking drugs or drinking more alcohol than is reasonable and subsequently becoming addicted.

Addiction and Veterans

Stress, anxiety, and other mental health disorders are some of the most common triggers for substance abuse. Among the veteran community, this population is highly susceptible to stress and other traumas that are known triggers for substance addiction and alcohol abuse. PTSD, in particular, is incredibly distressing and veterans and members of the armed forces have some of the highest rates of PTSD than any other demographic group.

PTSD from war and combat was first noticed and acknowledged in the U.S. after the Civil War. It was referred to as “soldier’s heart.” Veterans returning from combat in WWI and WWII were referred to as “shell shocked” when exhibiting signs that doctors now recognize as PTSD.

Modern wars are much different than wars that previous generations have experienced, and addiction and substance abuse rates among veterans returning from combat in the War on Terror are rising.  As more veterans return from these wars with mental and physical disabilities from their deployment, substance abuse rates increase.

What are the most commonly abused drugs among veterans?

Prescription drugs are some of the most frequently abused drugs among returning service members. Narcotics, and prescription opiates and opioid-derivative drugs are often used to treat physical injuries and pain stemming from combat and deployment. Unfortunately, these drugs are incredibly addictive. A patient does not have to abuse the drug to become dependent on it, and in fact, the majority of people addicted to prescription opioids took their medication as directed by a physician. What makes opioid prescriptions so dangerous is that a person can become dependent, lose their legal supply of the drug, and turn to even more dangerous street heroin to prevent painful withdrawal symptoms.

The second most commonly abused substance among veterans is alcohol. It is widely available, socially acceptable, and it can be difficult for someone to recognize when their drinking habits stray beyond the range of what’s “normal” or healthy. Combining alcohol with a prescription painkiller can be fatal since both substances suppress respiratory rate.

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Traumatic experiences, the stress of being deployed to a dangerous area, not seeing family and friends for months at a time, and enduring physical and emotional injuries all contribute to substance abuse rates among veterans. About one in every 15 servicemen or women have a substance abuse disorder. In the general population, about one in 11 people struggle with addiction.

Although substance use rates are lower among veterans than the general population, what’s worrisome is how much substance abuse rates have risen among returning combat veterans, compared to veterans of previous wars. Pre-Vietnam War veterans experienced substance use disorders of 3.7%. Among people who joined the military after September 2001, rates have increased to 12.7%.

For veterans struggling with substance use disorder, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers treatment programs for addiction. There is also a Veterans Alcohol and Drug Dependence Program provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the program provides therapy and support services for eligible veterans with a substance use disorder. VA medical centers and clinics across the U.S. offer treatment services under the program. Veterans must be enrolled in the VA healthcare system to receive treatment under these programs. They must also have an Honorable, General, or Under Honorable discharge to qualify for services.

Why would someone be reluctant to use the services of the VA?

In some locations, the wait times for services provided by the VA can be long and prohibitive. Extensive wait times and overwhelmed medical providers may prompt veterans to seek care in the private sector where care is more readily available. Veterans who live in rural areas may not have a VA center located near them. In some cases, private care facilities are closer to rural veterans than in VA hospitals and clinics. The government will sometimes pay for a veteran’s care in a private rehabilitation facility.

How do mental health issues influence substance abuse rates in returning service members?

Studies have found strong links between veterans struggling with addiction, depression, and suicide. Rates of suicide among returning service members across all branches of the military increased during the peak of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.

Substance abuse and PTSD are inextricably linked. Although anyone who’s experienced trauma can develop PTSD, veterans who’ve seen combat are more at-risk of the disorder. Two out of ten veterans with PTSD are also addicted to either drugs or alcohol, whereas one out of every three military veterans seeking treatment for substance abuse have PTSD. Returning veterans with PTSD who abuse alcohol tend to binge drink. Binge drinking is incredibly dangerous and increases a person’s risk of fatally overdosing on alcohol. Alcohol abuse is also a factor in worsening depression symptoms and the risk of suicide.

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It’s critical that returning service members seek treatment for addiction, depression, and PTSD. Although these medical issues are lifelong, they can effectively be treated with holistic and integrated drug abuse treatment counseling and mental health treatment. Many private addiction clinics and rehab centers offer discounts to military veterans. The government will also subsidize care for veterans who meet eligibility requirements. Information on government assistance for treatment in a private care facility can be found on the VA website.

Are you struggling with drug addiction or mental health issues stemming from your military service? There is help. The drug addiction and mental health counselors at Windward Way have helped hundreds of returning service members overcome addiction and achieve sobriety and well-being. Please contact Windward Way today to explore your options for treatment.


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