Opioid Misuse Among Veterans: Causes, Identification, and Recovery

Last Updated: December 26, 2023

Veterans grappling with opioid misuse have access to diverse support and recovery options.

Understanding Opioid Misuse in Veterans

The increasing prevalence of opioid misuse within the veteran community is a concerning issue. Recent research has shed light on the extent of the problem:

  • In the year before a survey, 2.5% of veterans reported opioid misuse, including heroin and prescription painkillers misuse.
  • Among all veterans, 490,000 misuse prescription painkillers, 57,000 use heroin, and 53,000 misuse both heroin and prescription painkillers.
  • Oxycodone emerges as the most abused substance among veteran opioid misusers, with 9.4% favoring it.
  • Opioid use disorder (OUD), the clinical term for opioid addiction, affects  0.5% of veterans aged 18 and older.

Furthermore, studies reveal that veterans face twice the risk of accidental opioid overdose compared to the general population.

Distinctive Factors Contributing to Opioid Addiction & Overdose in Veterans

Veterans encounter unique risk factors that heighten their susceptibility to opioid addiction. Military service, coupled with the challenges of reintegrating into civilian life and dealing with mental health conditions, amplifies the risk of opioid misuse.

PTSD & Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders

Opioid addiction and overdose in veterans often result from co-occurring mental health conditions like PTSD and depression. Opioid misuse may serve as a coping mechanism for managing emotional distress, which is prevalent among veterans. Notably, nearly one-third of veterans seeking treatment for a substance use disorder (SUD) also have PTSD. Opioids can temporarily alleviate symptoms of depression, making them attractive to veterans grappling with suicidal ideation and depression.

Chronic Pain & Opioid Dependency

Injuries sustained during military service may lead to chronic pain, potentially driving veterans to depend on prescribed pain medications, and consequently, opioid misuse. Research suggests that combat-wounded veterans are more prone to opioid misuse compared to the civilian population, underscoring the connection between pain and opioid addiction.

Coping With Military Sexual Trauma

Military sexual trauma (MST), affecting both men and women, escalates the risk of opioid addiction as veterans may turn to substances to numb the emotional anguish stemming from MST. Studies demonstrate that veterans with a history of MST are 50% more likely to develop opioid addiction.

Battling Social Isolation

Veterans, often grappling with mental health challenges, chronic pain, and limited mobility, are susceptible to social isolation. This isolation can lead to chronic loneliness, elevating the risk of opioid misuse. Moreover, isolated veterans may lack immediate assistance during an overdose, intensifying the potential for fatal outcomes.

The Nexus Between Homelessness & Opioid Misuse

Veterans face a higher risk of homelessness compared to civilians, which can exacerbate opioid addiction. Homeless veterans are more likely to misuse substances, lack social support, and remain vulnerable to fatal overdoses due to reduced access to emergency assistance.

Barriers to Healthcare Access

Limited access to healthcare for veterans heightens the risk of opioid addiction and overdose. Veterans underutilize healthcare services, resulting in reduced medical oversight. The lack of regular contact with healthcare providers can lead to insufficient education and information about opioid medications, their side effects, and proper usage.

Identifying Signs of Opioid Addiction in Veterans

Recognizing signs of opioid addiction in veterans is crucial for timely intervention and support. Some common signs include:

  • Mood swings
  • Secretive behavior
  • Deviation from prescribed medication instructions (such as using larger doses, crushing, or snorting pills)
  • Neglecting relationships and hobbies due to opioid preoccupation
  • Inability to reduce opioid use
  • Developing tolerance, requiring larger quantities for the same effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using opioids

Opioid Addiction Treatment & Support for Veterans

Veterans seeking recovery from opioid use disorder can access a range of treatment and support options, often combining several approaches:

Therapy & Psychiatric Medication

Given the co-occurrence of OUD and mental health conditions like PTSD and depression, veterans often engage in therapy and may use psychiatric medications to address mental health issues. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), including cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and prolonged exposure (PE), has been particularly effective for veterans with both PTSD and OUD.

Naloxone Access Through the VA

To mitigate the risk of opioid overdose, veterans at risk can obtain naloxone for free. This life-saving medication can reverse opioid overdoses, and veterans can obtain naloxone prescriptions through their VA providers.

Peer-Led Support Groups

Peer support is integral to veterans’ addiction treatment, with support groups providing a safe space to discuss recovery challenges and connect with peers facing similar issues.

Engaging Friends & Family

Involving friends and family in the treatment plan offers veterans vital social support, reducing the risk of social isolation. Family members can participate in family counseling to enhance their ability to support and communicate with their loved ones.

Comprehensive Drug Rehabilitation

Comprehensive drug rehabilitation programs, available in both inpatient and outpatient formats, are beneficial for veterans with OUD. Treatment often commences with medical detox due to the severity of opioid withdrawal symptoms. Rehab programs encompass individual therapy, group counseling, medication management, and support groups.

Assistance for Veterans Battling Opioid Addiction

Orlando Recovery Center provides a diverse range of services for veterans seeking addiction treatment. Our state-of-the-art inpatient facility offers the highest-quality care, and our staff is specially trained to assist veterans as a part of the VA Community Care Network.

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

Get your life back

Recovery is possible. Begin your journey today

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What To Expect

When you call our team, you will speak to a Recovery Advocate who will answer any questions and perform a pre-assessment to determine your eligibility for treatment. If eligible, we will create a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. If The Recovery Village is not the right fit for you or your loved one, we will help refer you to a facility that is. All calls are 100% free and confidential.

All calls are 100% free and confidential.