A veteran’s service comes with sacrifices, as many veterans experience unwanted consequences during and after their time in the military. Various conditions affect veterans, but substance abuse and mental health problems are common complaints. To ensure veterans receive comprehensive care and medical services, they need access to high-quality veterans substance abuse resources.
Why Is Substance Abuse So Common Amongst Veterans?
Substance abuse conditions are fairly common for all Americans. As people look for ways to feel good, perform better or experience a pleasurable high, they turn toward substance use.
Military life exposes veterans to higher levels of stress and discomfort than civilians, which could result in higher rates of substance use. Some aspects of service known to increase stress include:
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD presents after a person experiences a situation that threatens their safety or the safety of a loved one. PTSD can affect the way the person interacts with others and their environment.
- Mood and Anxiety Disorders: PTSD will not emerge in everyone with high stress. Some people will show signs and symptoms of anxiety or mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder.
- Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI): TBIs are sadly common during active-duty military service. These injuries can result in lasting physical, cognitive and psychological deficits.
- Inability To Cope With Stress: Perhaps the veteran can manage high degrees of stress, but the levels accumulated from service are just too great. At this point, the veteran lacks the coping skills to maintain their psychological well-being.
- Difficulty Transitioning Back To Civilian Life: After years or decades in military service, the transition back to civilian life may be difficult, leading to increased stress.
- Chronic Pain Due To Injuries: Military duty is physically demanding, and aches and pains become normal. At times, these injuries can escalate to chronic and debilitating problems.
- Combat Exposure: Evidence shows that combat exposure equates to higher levels of stress and substance use.
High-stress situations require powerful coping skills, but many people are drawn to the quick relief that alcohol and other drugs can provide. Substances are negative coping skills because they only temporarily resolve the issue. When the drugs wear off, stress returns.
Veteran Substance Abuse Statistics
Sadly, veterans frequently use substances as a way to shrink their stress or avoid their problems. Statistics on veterans and substance abuse show alcohol use is high with:
- More than 50% of veterans drinking alcohol in the last month
- Approximately 7.5% of veterans reporting heavy consumption of alcohol
- More than 26% of vets with combat exposure reporting using alcohol heavily and nearly 55% reporting binge drinking
Drug use is problematic for the military as well, with:
- The number of vets using opioids with prescriptions in the VA health care system quadrupling in recent years
- Veterans, on average, having more than three doctors offering them opioids
- Doctors prescribe veterans the dangerous combination of sedatives and opioids more often than civilians
- About 27% of veterans smoking, which is a significantly higher rate than nonmilitary members
- Approximately 3.5% of veterans report using marijuana within the last 30 days
- Nearly 2% of vets consumed another illicit drug like cocaine, heroin or hallucinogens in the previous month
Which Substances Do Veterans And Active-Duty Military Members Commonly Abuse?
Just as civilians with substance use disorders do not all use the same drugs, veterans and active-duty military use a variety of legal and illicit substances. Some will only use substances that are easily accessible, while others will use a specific substance to self-medicate their stress, mental illness or physical problems.
Since alcohol is legal and easy to obtain, active-duty and veteran alcohol abuse are common. Nearly half of all active service members reported using alcohol excessively within the last year, with about 1 in 5 members of the military stating that they binge drink weekly. If the person has combat exposure, the rate of binge drinking increases to 27%.
With a zero-tolerance policy in place, illegal drug use levels are mild for active-duty military members, which could encourage the use of legal drugs like alcohol. Of active military members, only about 2.3% admitted to past month use, compared to about 12% of nonmilitary members.
Alternatively, veterans use illicit substances at higher rates than members of the general population. They may gravitate toward drugs like:
Active-duty military face harsh punishments for illicit drug use, so many may find themselves abusing and misusing legal prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Rates of prescription drug abuse are currently climbing, with members using drugs like opioids and sedatives to relieve pain, improve sleep and cope with stress.
Opioids & Painkillers
Opioids are prescription painkillers prescribed to reduce pain. When abused, they can create a feeling of intense pleasure. Nearly 1 in 4 vets who receive care from the VA receive opioids. While many use these medications as prescribed, others abuse the medications and become addicted to them.
Examples of commonly abused opioids include:
Sedatives (Benzodiazepines and Sleeping Medications)
Benzodiazepines and sleeping medications are sedatives that help create feelings of calm and relaxation. They also improve sleep. Due to higher rates of anxiety and sleep problems caused or exacerbated by time in the service, veterans tend to have higher rates of prescription and abuse of sedatives than others. Misused sedatives may include:
PTSD And Substance Abuse In Veterans
Whether someone is a veteran or not, PTSD and substance abuse commonly co-occur. Veterans have higher rates of PTSD and substance abuse, which equals a larger number of vets with both conditions.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD is a psychological condition that affects just under 10% of the U.S. population at some point in their life, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). All people with PTSD experience some negative or life-threatening event that sparks unwanted signs of PTSD.
Some of the most common symptoms of PTSD include:
- Having recurrent thoughts about the scary event
- Trying to avoid thinking about the event and encountering reminders of the event
- Experiencing increased anxiety, fear or problems with memory and decision-making
- Having trouble sleeping
- Being easily started or irritated
Veterans with combat expose have some of the highest rates of PTSD, along with people who were raped or held captive. People who encounter dangerous situations as part of their jobs, like law enforcement, firefighters, medical personnel and members of the military, also tend to have high rates of PTSD compared to the general population.
Are Veterans With PTSD More Likely To Develop A Substance Abuse Disorder?
Yes. People with PTSD have higher rates of substance abuse, and since veterans have higher rates of PTSD, they also have higher rates of substance abuse. However, substance use disorders are not the only mental health conditions vets with PTSD can develop. Veterans with PTSD may also have depression, bipolar or anxiety disorders.
Treating PTSD And Substance Abuse In Veterans
Treating PTSD is always a complicated process that requires individualized, comprehensive efforts to improve the condition. Due to the nature of their PTSD, veterans often benefit from specialized treatments to target their unique circumstances.
Some methods to improve PTSD and substance abuse in vets include:
- Individual, family and group therapy
- Medication management
- Support group meetings
The Effects Of Veteran Substance Abuse
Substance use disorders have devastating effects on the individual and those close to them. As someone develops substance use disorder, it becomes detrimental to all facets of their health and happiness. Someone may feel like they have their addiction under control, but with enough time, damage will occur.
People with substance use disorders routinely experience:
- Increased conflict and unhappiness in relationships
- Financial and legal hardships
- Declining mental and physical health
- Problems at work and school
- A compulsion to use drugs, even when negative outcomes are likely
- Strong cravings to use drugs and feeling sick or uncomfortable when no drugs are available
People use substances in an attempt to improve their mood and well-being, but drugs and alcohol only bring about more stress, pain and frustration over time. If use continues, it could lead to:
- Incarceration: DUI and drug possession chargers are ways substance use directly leads to legal problems. Fighting while intoxicated or stealing to obtain more drugs can also result in incarceration.
- Homelessness: Spending excessive money on drugs, failing to pay bills and ruining relationships with trusted sources of support can all lead to homelessness.
- Depression: The stress of military service, the impact of PTSD and the influence of substance abuse can all lead to depression.
- Suicide: More than 6,000 veteran complete suicide each year, many of whom are struggling with substance abuse before their death.
Substance Abuse And Mental Health Treatment Options For Veterans
Veterans benefit from specialized addiction treatment. Today, there are many choices for members and former members of the military to get the help they need and deserve.
People seeking the available services for a vet should begin by contacting the Office of Veterans Affairs. This agency provides numerous standard and innovative forms of treatment and services aimed at the needs of military members. Programs include:
- VA Substance Abuse Programs: Programs offer access to assessments, treatments, support groups and aftercare options
- Veterans Crisis Line: Any vet experiencing a significant crisis should call 877-222-8387 to speak with a trained professional
- Female vet-specific care: Women in the military face unique challenges and treatments are available to address these needs
- Counseling and Therapy: Therapy is available in person, over the phone, on video messaging apps and through online training courses
Other forms of specialized care for veterans include trauma counseling and grief loss counseling. Because returning to life outside of the military is challenging, the VA may provide career assistance and readjustment counseling to smooth the transition.
Veteran-Specific Drug Rehab Centers
Veteran-specific rehab services are important to provide vets with specialized substance use disorder care, like:
- Medical Detox: Professional detoxification services are key for people ending the use of substances, especially opioids, alcohol and sedatives, to make the process safe and comfortable. Potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms can’t be attended to without medical supervision.
- Inpatient Drug Rehab: Those with long-term or severe addictions can benefit from inpatient rehab to get time away from the stresses of daily life to focus on recovery 24/7.
- Outpatient Rehab: People that cannot spend time away from home or have shorter-term addictions can visit a local facility for scheduled appointments during outpatient rehab.
- Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): During detox, inpatient rehab or outpatient treatment, MAT can be used to reduce withdrawal symptoms, manage cravings and facilitate recovery.
- Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment: Since many with substance use disorders also have other mental health conditions, co-occurring disorder treatment can be used to address all symptoms to improve the person’s overall well-being.
- Aftercare: Even after professional treatments end, aftercare options are available to continue the recovery process and minimize the risk of relapse.
Veterans have specialized needs and require specialized care to manage their substance use and other mental health disorders. If you need help, consider calling Orlando Recovery Center today. Reach out to a representative today for more information.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Substance Abuse in the Military.” March 2013. Accessed August 30, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.” January 2019. Accessed August 30, 2019.
Teeters, Jenni B., et al. “Substance Use Disorders in Military Vete[…]Treatment Challenges.” Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, August 2017. Accessed August 30, 2019.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “VA Mental Health Services.” June 14, 2019. August 30, 2019.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “VA National Suicide Data Report 2005-2016.” September 2018. Accessed August 30, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.