Veterans and Addiction

Veterans and AddictionIn light of remembering and acknowledging veterans, we are discussing the need to extend encouragement and support for the mental health of this community. An estimated 23.4 million veterans live in the United States, along with 2.2 million military service members and 3.1 million immediate family members. We often recognize our active-duty military men and women for their service, but we know a greater community of inactive military needs our continued support.

Men and women who have served overseas or experienced combat often struggle to adjust once their service is completed. While various programs serve to help veterans find jobs and get reacclimated to society, many of these people battle mental health issues of PTSD and depression without the clinical care and support that they need. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that more than 2 out of 10 veterans who have PTSD also suffer from a substance use disorder. Read on to learn what factors play a role in addiction trends among veterans.

Reasons for turning to substances

When someone comes back from war, that person may be traumatized from witnessing various forms of shock or loss. The catalysts of that shock may have been disturbing images, exposure to combat, fallen comrades, gruesome injuries, explosions, or other horrific conditions. Each of these examples can put someone through post-traumatic stress disorder, producing a number of unwanted, unpleasant symptoms.

PTSD symptoms can drive veterans to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol for multiple reasons:

  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Coping with stress that others (perceivably) can’t relate to
  • Feeling isolated or cut-off from others
  • Feeling nervous, scared, or constantly on-guard
  • Dealing with chronic pain
  • Experiencing reoccurring nightmares
  • Wanting distraction from painful memories
  • Wanting to avoid addressing deeper issues

Addicts turn to substances to numb the discomfort of all these circumstances. Unfortunately, substance abuse only escalates the pain of these situations, causing continued irregular sleep patterns, increased stress, heavier feelings of loneliness and hopelessness, devastating hangovers and sickness, and deeper spiraling mental health issues.

Prevalence of substance abuse

The statistics around veterans’ substance abuse are staggering. One study of 600 veterans who had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan found that 39% screened positive for probable alcohol abuse. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that between 2004 and 2006, 7.1% of U.S. veterans met the criteria for having a substance abuse disorder.

When pairing these trends with mental health issues, veterans face huge obstacles by way of health problems, relationship turmoil, and maintaining ongoing employment. SAMHSA also reports that 50% of returning service members who need mental health treatment seek out those options, but only slightly more than half who enter treatment receive adequate care.

Co-occurring PTSD and addiction magnify the symptoms of each other, plaguing the victim with flashbacks, aggression, trouble concentrating, and low sense of self-worth.

Need for continued support

This topic raises an important need to look out for our men and women in uniform. As neighbors, friends, relatives, and coworkers, we are reminded of our role to recognize the needs of veterans as they adjust back into civilian life.

Do you know any former military personnel who need help? Learn how to approach the subject of addiction treatment.