Working in the armed forces is a time-honored way to serve others first. Veterans come home knowing they’ve fulfilled their duty to their nation and countrymen by taking up the cause. But one growing issue among members of the military who return from combat is addiction to alcohol and illicit drugs.
To the general population, it’s easy to say that the cause of the substance abuse is the harrowing experiences that veterans faced in combat. While trauma can indeed be a major player in addiction, there’s more to the story that families and partners of veterans should know.
The information provided on this page explores the complex nature of addiction in veterans and provides information on how to help a loved one overcome their substance use disorder (SUD) after serving in the armed forces.
Statistics on Addiction Within Military Veterans
Addiction affects people in different professions, not just those who serve in the armed forces. However, studies show that the number of individuals who leave active duty and return to normal civilian life are at a higher risk of abusing alcohol and drugs, especially opioids.
One study conducted by NSDUH, or the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, shows that 1 in 15 veterans have abused a substance in the past year.
Here are other key numbers on substance abuse among veterans:
- 5% of veterans admitted to using marijuana, while another 1.7% admitted to using illicit drugs other than marijuana within the last month.
- Cannabis use disorder is one of the primary types of addiction being treated by the Veterans Health Administration, with the number of cases having increased by 50% between 2002 and 2009.
- Alcohol use disorders are the most prevalent form of SUDs affecting military personnel.
- Approximately 20% of service members binge drink at least once a week.
- Between 2003 to 2009, the rate of military personnel seeking treatment for alcoholism increased by 56%.
Why Veterans Are Susceptible to Addiction
Because of the complex nature of this condition, psychologists and medical researchers are still trying to understand what makes some people more prone to addiction than others. What can be said, however, is this — a combination of risk factors can make some people more vulnerable.
Researchers found that the following situations can increase the chance of addiction among veterans:
- Having a parent who is also a war veteran and suffers from substance use disorder
- Co-occuring mental issues such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety
- Exposure to stressful combat situations
- Experiencing sexual abuse while serving in the military
- Interpersonal traumas prior to entering the military (e.g. histories of child physical or sexual abuse)
- Suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI)
- Chronic pain due to combat injuries
There are members of the military who go through the same difficult events but don’t develop addiction, while others develop them at a later time after serving in the armed forces. This is called delayed-onset PTSD and can occur six months after experiencing the traumatic event.
The Challenges of Reintegrating into Civilian Life
Many war veterans, especially those who have fought in key wars such as in Vietnam, Iraq, and WWII have had to fight for their lives. And many more have had to undergo strict training in order to become effective military servicemen and servicewomen.
This can lead to countless challenges when attempting to reintegrate into society. But the difficulties aren’t limited to mental health issues. It’s not uncommon for veterans to report having trouble adjusting to family life or finding stable employment. These can be a source of frustration for veterans and may lead them to drink heavily or use drugs as a means to cope.
Alcohol Use Disorders among Veterans
Among the substances commonly abused by veterans who come home from military service, alcohol is the most prevalent. The factors that contribute to alcohol addiction aren’t black and white, but experts agree that the wide acceptance of heavy drinking among military personnel is one major contributing factor.
During their time in the military, men and women tend to binge drink as a form of recreation, stress relief, and means of socialization. This isn’t surprising since the general civilian population also consumes large quantities of alcohol for the same reasons.
The obvious difference is that veterans are more likely to have been exposed to highly stressful situations such as combat, which can result in trauma and other mental disorders. As mentioned above, individuals who suffer from trauma and mental health issues tend to be more prone to addiction issues such as alcohol use disorder (ASD).
The Link Between PTSD and Addiction Among Veterans
It should be noted that PTSD is a common trend among veterans who suffer from addiction, which is why this disorder is worth looking into if we wish to help a loved one who suffers from substance use disorder and other co-occurring illnesses.
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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs after a person experiences or witnesses a life-threatening or traumatic event. According to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, as many as 10 to 30 percent of individuals serving in the military have PTSD, depending on when and where they served.
Another cause of PTSD within members of the military is sexual harassment and abuse. It’s such a prevalent problem that the mental disorder has its own name: military sex trauma or MST. And it can happen to both men and women, regardless if it’s during peacetime, war, or training.
So, how does addiction fit into the picture? As it turns out, substance use disorder affects more than 2 out of every 10 veterans who have PTSD. Experiencing a life-threatening event can make veterans more susceptible to alcohol dependency and addiction to illicit drugs.
Addiction to Opioids
Serving in combat can lead to a slew of physical problems in war veterans, such as loss of limbs, chronic headaches, and back pain. Opioids are commonly prescribed by doctors to deal with these ailments.
The problem is that these prescription opioids, which include Vicodin (hydrocodone/paracetamol) and OxyContin (oxycodone), are highly addictive. Given veterans’ susceptibility to developing an addiction, it’s easy to see how they end up getting hooked on strong painkillers.
Without medication to manage chronic pain, however, life can be very challenging for veterans and their loved ones. The US Department of Veterans Affairs, commonly known as the VA, has started offering programs on pain management without the use of prescription opioids, but at the moment, treating the addiction itself is believed to be the best method of dealing with the problem.
How Veterans’ Families Can Help
The VA recommends that family members and partners of veteran loved ones should take a few steps to encourage the person with addiction to get help. They can:
- Learn more about PTSD, its symptoms, and how it affects veterans
- Offer support and physical presence, especially during doctors’ appointments and treatments
- Create a relaxing environment or plan out fun activities for the family
- Encourage the veteran loved one to spend more time with people who don’t abuse substances
- Consider family therapy so addiction issues that are rooted in family issues can be addressed
- Know the difference between supporting and enabling
- Find the right treatment facility
There are several barriers that prevent veterans from getting access to proper care, such as gaps in insurance coverage, fear of social stigma, lack of confidential treatment, and limited access to facilities and treatment centers, especially for veterans living in rural areas.
Addiction and mental issues, however, should be treated so veterans can live their life to the fullest after their service in the military. Studies show that family dynamics play a crucial role in speeding up recovery and preventing relapse in addicted individuals.
Enabling, for example, is detrimental to an addicted person’s recovery. Family members may not know whether their actions and responses to a person with addiction is helping or worsening the effects of the disease.
A family therapist can help identify enabling behavior, as well as other hidden factors that prevent or impede the healing process, such as poor communication and lack of awareness about substance use disorders.
Find the Right Treatment Path
If you have a loved one who suffers from addiction and other co-occurring disorders, it’s crucial for them to get proper treatment. Among the treatment options available to veterans include:
- Individual counseling
- Inpatient rehabilitation
- Outpatient rehabilitation
- PTSD treatment
- Group therapy
- Family therapy or family counseling
Military service is rife with life-threatening and stressful situations, and every veteran’s recovery path should be uniquely-tailored for their needs and taken at an individual pace. It’s also beneficial for veterans to have a support system while in recovery to help them stay motivated in times of need.
Deciding to get treatment for alcohol use disorder and drug addiction is a life-changing decision. Here at Better Addiction Care, you can search for rehabilitation centers that offer comprehensive treatment for military veterans who want to regain control over their lives and reintegrate themselves into society as happy and healthy individuals. You can also find treatment facilities that offer individual and family therapy sessions to help both the addicted person and their family. For more information about our services or if you’d like to get immediate help for a loved one with addiction, call us at (800) 429-7690.