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Substance Abuse Resources for Veterans

They volunteered their time and service to our country. They sacrificed their comfort and peace of mind. “They” are the veterans of the United States military. Many men and women retire from the military with memories they wish they didn’t have. For many of them, these plaguing thoughts have the power to wreak havoc on their lives and those of their loved ones. In many cases, veterans turn to drugs and alcohol as a result of various mental disorders associated with these thoughts, especially PTSD. Luckily, there are resources available to help.

Are you a veteran struggling with a substance misuse or co-occurring disorder (PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc.)? Are you a friend or other loved one of a veteran, and you want to learn more about substance use and PTSD among veterans or the ways you can help them? If so, you’ll find the answers to your questions on this page, including information on rehab centers and VA options.

Why Is Veteran Substance Abuse So Common?

Drug and alcohol abuse is a concern for the entire country, especially among the veteran population. While active duty drug use is low as a result of stringent bans on controlled substances, veteran drug use is, unfortunately, more prevalent. Alcohol and opioids in particular impact veterans at a staggering rate. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that 1 in 10 returning Iraq and Afghanistan war soldiers face problems with alcohol or other drugs. In order to treat and prevent future problems, it’s important to understand the reasons why so many former military men and women struggle with substance abuse.

There are many reasons that veterans may suffer with substance abuse, including difficulty transitioning back into civilian life, emotional and mental health struggles, and chronic pain. While drugs and alcohol are detrimental to so many, there are several veteran substance abuse programs available to help former service members, including VA addiction treatment and private substance abuse centers. With proper treatment and continued efforts to prevent further substance issues, veterans can overcome the destructive nature of substance use disorders.

Veteran Substance Abuse While Transitioning to Civilian Life

Any type of transition or change in life can be challenging. But for veterans, returning to civilian life after active duty can be especially difficult. The military provides a highly structured environment, which can be difficult to reconcile with more traditional jobs where titles, roles and duties are not as clearly defined. These challenges can be heightened for those who have been in high-risk, life-threatening situations.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs highlights several difficulties that veterans face while transitioning into civilian life, including finding gainful employment, housing and other necessities. Other challenges include:

  • Finding community and camaraderie outside of the military

  • Returning to or finding a civilian job (some may need additional training and education)

  • Adjusting to new, overwhelming choices and decisions in everyday life

  • Navigating services and benefits previously provided by the military, including medical and dental care

  • Finding housing, especially for families

One of the most overlooked challenges a former service member faces when transitioning into civilian life is the overwhelming amount of daily choices. For many, everything from clothing and scheduling to housing and food can be inundating. The sudden influx of decisions and stressors, coupled with the potential for unemployment and loss of identity, can lead some to use substances to cope.

The most commonly abused substance by veterans (and active duty service members) is alcohol. In a survey of 1,120 recently deployed soldiers, 25 percent had misused alcohol, while a separate survey indicated that 53 percent admitted to binge drinking. These unhealthy relationships with alcohol are often the result of not knowing how to manage and cope with the difficult experiences faced during duty. This is only exacerbated when a veteran transitions back into civilian life and is faced with daunting choices and uncertainty, all while still managing the emotional and psychological effects of their previous post.

The most important step in treating veteran alcohol misuse and addiction is prevention. Ensuring that service members have the resources they need to securely transition into civilian life is key. It’s also important for many to seek extended counseling for the mental and emotional hardships that can come from service. But for those who are already struggling with alcohol or other substances, there are many resources available, including VA alcohol rehab and private treatment centers like The Recovery Village, a nation-wide network of rehabilitation facilities. The Recovery Village has several locations throughout the United States and is dedicated to helping patients of all backgrounds overcome substance use disorder and any co-occurring mental health disorders, which is especially important for veterans.

According to a 2013 SAMHSA report, 65.4 percent of veterans in substance abuse treatment suffered from alcohol addiction, compared to 37.4 percent of non-veterans in treatment.

Veteran Drug Abuse and Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is an issue that many Americans struggle with. In fact, about 30 percent of Americans suffer from some form of long-term pain. Veterans, on the other hand, deal with frequent and constant pain at an even higher rate — 60 percent of those previously deployed in the Middle East and 50 percent of older veterans experience chronic pain.

With traumatic injuries and extreme circumstances, it’s no wonder that veterans experience pain at a higher rate than the general population. But treating this pain has become a problem in recent years. For many, pain management and treatment involves opioids, powerful painkillers only available with a prescription. When taken as directed, these medications can be effective in treating a variety of ailments, including back pain, surgery recovery and other injuries. However, opioids have the potential to contribute to veteran drug abuse, as these powerful pills are potentially addictive.

Until recently, there was an extreme spike in opioid prescriptions, which in turn led to an increase in painkiller addictions among veterans. A 2013 study by the Center for Investigative Reporting found a 270 percent uptick in veteran opioid prescriptions over a 12-year span. This rise resulted in double the amount of addiction and overdose deaths among the veteran population as compared to the national average.

And while the VA and other organizations are beginning to recognize the issue, substance use disorder is still a problem for many veterans who originally sought treatment for chronic pain and ended up with an opioid addiction. VA data notes that between 2010 and 2015, there was a 55 percent rise in veteran opioid-use disorders. Roughly 68,000 veterans, about 13 percent of those using opioids, struggle with addiction.

While opioids and other medications can be effective for many, there are other ways to safely control and reduce long-term pain, especially for veterans. Some VA centers are even incorporating alternative methods like yoga, acupuncture, mindfulness and physical therapy. Because veterans and substance abuse can easily go hand and hand, these alternative programs are slowly beginning to spread to help mitigate the addictive potential of opioid painkillers.

But for those who struggle with opioid addiction, the reality of the situation can be a grave challenge. According to a 2011 study, veterans are twice as likely to accidentally overdose on opioids than other Americans. And although substance abuse can be a struggle for many former service members, it doesn’t have to be the end of their story. There are several VA drug rehab programs throughout the country, along with other centers dedicated to helping veterans. The Recovery Village has a network of treatment centers across the United States and offers a full range of wellness services to help veterans cope with substance use disorder. With the right help, veterans can overcome addiction, manage pain and heal for a brighter tomorrow in the nation they served.

PTSD and Substance Use in Veterans

It’s difficult to comprehend the complex combination of pride, anger, duty, anguish and anxiety many veterans feel after their time in the service. Adjusting back to civilian life in the United States is a tremendously difficult process. And while some veterans sustain only minor physical and psychological wounds from combat, others aren’t as lucky. Thousands are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a debilitating mental health condition caused by the traumatic events experienced in wartime. Often, struggling veterans will turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, inadvertently worsening their PTSD symptoms.

PTSD and substance use are two of the most serious, pressing issues impacting our country’s bravest men and women. If left unaddressed, PTSD and substance abuse in veterans can be deadly. It’s time to break the stigma surrounding these conditions. Reaching out to others for help isn’t a sign of weakness — it’s proof of strength. With the right therapeutic care, veterans can get to the roots of their addiction, work through their PTSD and go on to lead the peaceful, fulfilling lives they deserve.

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition caused by trauma. Any horrific, shocking or disturbing event can be a trauma, such as a serious accident, rape, natural disaster, terrorist attack or combat situation. Events where a person believes that their life or the lives of others are in danger are particularly traumatic and most often lead to PTSD.

For people living with this condition, daily life is a constant struggle punctuated by unwanted thoughts about the traumatic event, severe anxiety and intense paranoia. Triggers and danger lurk behind every corner, and the outside world becomes a frightening and unwelcoming place. Many isolate themselves to cope, shutting out close friends and family members and avoiding activities they once loved.

Signs and symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Reliving the traumatic event

  • Avoiding people, places or situations that serve as a reminder of the traumatic event

  • Intense feelings of anxiety and helplessness

  • Sudden bouts of anger, adrenaline or hypervigilance

  • Difficulty sleeping, concentrating or controlling emotions

  • Partaking in impulsive or self-destructive behaviors

  • Suicidal thoughts

PTSD does not discriminate by age, sex, race or religion; it can impact anyone, with approximately 8 percent of the U.S. population developing the condition at some point in their lives. However, people in jobs where traumatic events happen regularly — including firefighters, policemen and soldiers — are more likely to develop PTSD. Recent PTSD research reveals a dose-response curve that explains this trend: The more traumatic experiences a person is exposed to, the more likely they are to experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

How Common Is PTSD Among Veterans?

While nearly anyone can suffer from PTSD, veterans are more likely to develop the condition than the general population. Military life exposes soldiers to frequent deadly — and thus potentially traumatic — situations, leaving them at an increased risk of physical injury and the invisible wounds of PTSD. Military sexual assault also contributes to high veteran PTSD rates, particularly in female members. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that 23 out of every 100 women who use VA care experienced a sexual assault while in the military.

The number of veterans affected by PTSD varies by service era. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:

  • An estimated 30 percent of Vietnam veterans experienced PTSD in their lifetime.

  • An estimated 12 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans experienced PTSD in their lifetime.

  • An estimated 11–20 percent of Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF) veterans experienced PTSD in their lifetime.

These numbers may seem staggering, but they’re likely lower than they should be. Until recent years, many treated PTSD as a failure of character or a manifestation of inner weakness rather than one of the countless tragic, human consequences of war. Because some guilt and shame surrounding the condition still exists, many instances of PTSD and other mental health conditions go unreported. Perhaps this is why a new study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed that roughly 20 veterans commit suicide every day in the United States. About 70 percent of these individuals were not regular users of VA services, which include mental health care and counseling that are known to improve PTSD symptoms.

Are Veterans With PTSD More Likely to Have Substance Use Disorders?

The around-the-clock anxiety and flashbacks characteristic of PTSD can be emotionally and physically debilitating. Unsurprisingly, many struggling with the condition turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to numb their pain. According to the 1995 National Comorbidity Survey, 52 percent of men and 28 percent of women with PTSD met the lifetime criteria for alcohol misuse or dependence, and 35 percent of men and 27 percent of women met the lifetime criteria for drug misuse or dependence.

Unfortunately, veterans with PTSD are no exception to this trend. In response to the relentless symptoms of PTSD, many consume alcohol and prescription drugs to cope. For veterans injured physically during combat, the risk of substance abuse is even higher. What starts off as a pain pill prescription for an injury can quickly escalate to full-blown dependence and addiction, particularly when PTSD is present.

Studies show that there is a strong relationship between PTSD and substance use disorders in veterans. The following are some veterans and substance abuse statistics, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:

  • 1 in 10 soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan misuse drugs or alcohol

  • Nearly 1 in 3 veterans seeking treatment for a substance use disorder also have PTSD

  • The number of veterans who smoke is nearly double for those with PTSD (6 in 10) than those without it (3 in 10)

While drugs and alcohol dull the pain of PTSD in the short-term, they cause the condition to worsen significantly over time. Co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders begin to chip away at a person’s relationships with their spouse, children, friends and coworkers. And while substance use seems to “help” those suffering from the condition escape their feelings in the short-term, it actually exacerbates and lengthens the intensity of PTSD-related flashbacks, anxiety and trauma in the long term.

If left unaddressed, PTSD and substance use disorders wreak havoc on the affected individual’s mental and physical health, causing:

  • Sleeping problems

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Increased stress levels

  • Isolation from family and friends

Working Through PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans

If you’re currently struggling with PTSD and substance use disorders, choosing not to seek professional treatment is one of the worst things you can do. If left untreated, PTSD on