Helping Veterans Deal with PTSD and Substance Use
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After their time in the military, some veterans turn to addiction to cope with PTSD. But there’s hope – treatment is available to tackle both issues together.
Returning to civilian life can bring challenges for veterans due to their military experiences. They’re at a higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can also lead to other problems like using substances in a harmful way. But with good treatment, things can get better.
PTSD is a mental health problem that comes after a person goes through something traumatic. This can happen because they were in a dangerous situation, like having their life threatened. But it can also happen if they saw or heard about something traumatic that happened to someone else. When someone has PTSD, they might have problems like, having bad memories about the traumatic event, struggling with nightmares, and feeling really upset when they’re reminded of it.
PTSD also means trying to stay away from anything that reminds them of the trauma. Their mood and behavior can change too. They might feel sad or think they’re to blame for what happened. Being happy might be tough, and they could suddenly get angry or do risky things. They might also struggle to sleep because they’re always on high alert for danger.
How Common Is PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans?
Veterans who have PTSD are more likely to have problems with drugs or alcohol. When a veteran has both PTSD and a drug or alcohol problem, they’re dealing with co-occurring disorders. Studies show that almost half of the people with PTSD also have a drug or alcohol problem. The Veterans Administration also says that more than 2 out of 10 veterans with PTSD also experience problems with drugs or alcohol.
Alcohol Addiction & PTSD
For veterans with PTSD, alcohol might seem like a way to forget bad feelings or memories. But as time goes on, they need more and more alcohol to get the same effect. If PTSD doesn’t get treated, they could end up having a problem with alcohol. Research shows that up to two-thirds of veterans who get help for alcohol problems also have PTSD.
Drug Addiction & PTSD
Veterans with PTSD can also struggle with drug addictions. Studies on veterans from wars like Iraq and Afghanistan found that male veterans might use drugs to cope with PTSD symptoms. For female veterans, using drugs can make future PTSD symptoms worse. This means men and women might be affected differently by drug addiction and PTSD. Veterans who were hurt in combat might also be more likely to get addicted to painkillers that they were initially prescribed for the sake of pain management.
What Triggers PTSD Symptoms in Veterans?
Veterans with PTSD often have things that make their symptoms worse. . These things are called triggers. Triggers can be people or events that remind them of their trauma. For example, loud noises that sound like explosions or gunfire can make them feel really angry or jumpy. When PTSD symptoms come up, they usually fall into these groups:
- Thoughts about the trauma that keep coming back
- Nightmares about the trauma
- Flashbacks, where it feels like the trauma is happening again
- Getting really stressed when reminded about the trauma
- Feeling weird in their body when reminded of the trauma (like their heart beating fast)
- Trying to stay away from anything that reminds them of the trauma
- Trying to block out bad memories or thoughts about the trauma
Changes in Mood
- Not remembering parts of the trauma
- Thinking bad thoughts, like believing the world isn’t safe
- Blaming themselves or others for what happened
- Feeling sad, guilty, mad, and scared a lot of the time
- Losing interest in things they used to like
- Feeling far away from other people
- Not feeling happy or joyful
Changes in How They Act
- Suddenly getting really mad
- Doing things that hurt them
- Being really watchful of their surroundings
- Getting scared easily
- Having trouble focusing
- Not sleeping well
Ways to Help Veterans with PTSD and Substance Abuse Issues
People who know veterans dealing with PTSD and addiction can make a big difference. Here’s how to provide support:
- Learn about their problems: Understand their symptoms and what makes things worse. This way, you can help when things get tough and avoid things that upset them.
- Be patient: Veterans with PTSD might act differently or feel sad or angry. Remember it’s because of their mental health, not something you did. Patience and kindness go a long way.
- Encourage them to get help: Veterans do best when they get treatment for PTSD and addiction. Tell them to talk to professionals and go to appointments. You could even help them set up appointments and go with them, so they feel supported.
Resources for Veterans
Veterans can find extra help for PTSD through these resources:
- VA Benefits Hotline: Call 855-586-2889 Monday to Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. ET.
- The VA Mental Health Page: Check out the VA’s mental health page for information on programs and treatments.
- National Center for PTSD: Find research and treatment information on PTSD at this site.
- Afterdeployment.org: Get expert advice on mental health treatment after deployment at this site.
Veteran Recovery Is Our Mission
Our facilities have helped thousands of veterans overcome a drug or alcohol addiction. At Orlando Recovery Center, our treatment programs offer veterans:
- Veteran Advocates who can navigate the VA on your behalf to enter treatment faster
- Experienced clinicians trained in military culture and trauma-informed care
- Dual diagnosis to treat addiction and mental health disorders together
- EMDR, a revolutionary treatment that alleviates trauma symptoms
Mann, Sukhmanjeet & Marwaha, Raman. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” National Library of Medicine, January 30, 2023. Accessed September 6, 2023.
McCauley, Jenna; Killeen, Therese; Gros, Daniel; Brady, Kathleen; & Back, Sudie. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders: Advances in Assessment and Treatment.” Clinical Psychology (New York), 2012. Accessed September 6, 2023.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans.” Accessed September 6, 2023.
Straus, Elizabeth; Norman, Sonya; Haller, Moira; Southwick, Steven; Hamblen, Jessica; & Peitrzak, Robert. “Differences in protective factors among U.S. Veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, alcohol use disorder, and their comorbidity: Results from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, January 2019. Accessed September 6, 2023.
Livingston, Nicholas, et al. “Longitudinal assessment of PTSD and illicit drug use among male and female OEF-OIF veterans.” Addictive Behaviors, July 2021. Accessed September 6, 2023.
Dembek, Zygmunt & Chekol, Tesema. “The Opioid Epidemic: Challenge to Military Medicine and National Security.” Military Medicine, 2020. Accessed September 6, 2023.
National Center for PTSD. “Effective Treatments for PTSD: Consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as First Line Treatment.” January 2015. Accessed September 6, 2023.