Veterans and Addiction:
A Quick Guide for 2019

Veterans and Addiction: A Quick Guide for 2019

Substance abuse is a significant problem among U.S. military veterans. According to a study published in the journal Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, veterans are more likely to use alcohol and report heavy alcohol use than their non-veteran counterparts.1 The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that alcohol abuse is the most widespread problem among soldiers and veterans. Additionally, prescription drug misuse is on the rise among veterans, with opioids being prescribed at increasing rates for chronic pain.

A number of services and interventions are available through the military to help veterans recover from a substance use disorder. These include VA Medical Centers around the nation, although veterans must be connected to a center to receive help. Many private rehab facilities offer specialized services aimed at veterans and address a range of issues faced by members of the military today.

The stigma of addiction impacts our service members, with active service military members and veterans being reluctant to admit to a substance abuse problem. Fear of what others will think and denial that there’s a problem are other common reasons why veterans may decline to get help for an addiction.

Veterans, Trauma and Addiction

Combat veterans have a high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Each year, around 12 percent of veterans who served in the Gulf War, 20 percent who served in Iraq, and 30 percent who served in Vietnam develop PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.2 Additionally, 23 percent of female veterans reporting being the victim of a sexual assault while serving in the military. In general, half of women who are sexually assaulted will develop PTSD, which is a major risk factor for substance abuse and addiction. All told, up to 75 percent of veterans who have endured trauma from sexual assault or combat report problematic drinking problems. The link between trauma and addiction is well-established. A study in the journal Addictive Behaviors points out that about half of people in recovery from an addiction have a history of PTSD.3 It’s common for people with PTSD to self-medicate symptoms with drugs or alcohol. Symptoms of PTSD may occur immediately after a trauma, or they may set in months or even years later. Symptoms of PTSD include:
  • Nightmares
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Flashbacks
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • An inability to concentrate
  • Withdrawal from family and friends

While alcohol and drugs may seem to relieve symptoms initially, they almost always make PTSD worse, and for many, substance abuse will transition to addiction and dependence.

Trauma-Informed Treatment

For veterans who have experienced trauma or have symptoms of PTSD, a trauma-informed treatment program offers the best chances for successful recovery, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.4 This approach recognizes that:
  • The impact of trauma is widespread and affects all areas of an individual’s life
  • There are many pathways to recovery, and a holistic approach is best
  • The current body of knowledge about trauma must be incorporated into policies, practices and procedures
  • Actively preventing re-traumatization is an important focus in treatment
A trauma-informed approach to treatment seeks to increase a sense of safety. It draws on research-based, trauma-focused therapies that help individuals:
  • Accept their experiences rather than avoid them
  • Improve the way they interact with their thoughts and emotions
  • Develop tolerance for distress
  • Reduce suicidal thoughts
  • Achieve feelings of completeness and freedom
  • Develop control over thoughts, emotions and behaviors
Trauma-focused therapies include acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT,) dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR,) and mindfulness-based meditation.

When Is It Time to Get Help?

Once alcohol or drug use becomes compulsive despite the problems it causes, professional help is recommended to end the addiction for the long-term. People who meet two or more of the following criteria are diagnosed with a substance use disorder, which may include heavy substance abuse, addiction, and/or dependence. A substance use disorder is characterized as mild by meeting two to three of the following criteria, moderate by meeting four or five criteria, or severe by meeting six or more of the criteria.
  1. Using the substance in ways that puts you or others in dangerous situations
  2. Experiencing relationship problems related to the substance abuse
  3. Neglecting responsibilities at home, work or school because of your substance abuse
  4. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop using suddenly
  5. Needing increasingly larger doses to get the same effect
  6. Abusing drugs or alcohol for a longer period of time or in larger amounts than you intended
  7. Wanting or trying to cut down or quit but finding you can’t
  8. Spending a lot of time using or recovering from using drugs or alcohol
  9. Experiencing physical or mental health problems as a result of your substance abuse
  10. Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  11. Experiencing cravings for the substance
Once alcohol or drug use becomes compulsive despite the problems it causes, professional help is recommended to end the addiction for the long-term. People who meet two or more of the following criteria are diagnosed with a substance use disorder, which may include heavy substance abuse, addiction, and/or dependence. A substance use disorder is characterized as mild by meeting two to three of the following criteria, moderate by meeting four or five criteria, or severe by meeting six or more of the criteria.

How Getting Help Changes your Life

Getting help for an addiction can dramatically improve your quality of life and sense of wellbeing. It may also save your life. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 6,000 veterans die by suicide each year.5 In 2016, the suicide rate for veterans was 26.1 per 100,000 individuals, compared with a rate of 17.4 per 100,000 among non-veterans.
Drug and alcohol abuse can increase the risk of suicide, and it can lead to a range of serious physical and mental health problems. Getting help reduces these risks and leads to a happier, more fulfilling life. A new military study shows that non-medical counseling offered through military resources resulted in improvement for more than three months after counseling ended. Counseling is frequently offered through military organizations, however, you have the freedom to accept treatment at a civilian facility.12 For active service members, it is possible for your commander to find out about your treatment through insurance claims or referral requests. Commander involvement may be encouraged as the support of others during recovery can contribute to your success. Rehab works for most people who choose a high-quality program and participate fully in their treatment plan. Recovery starts with detox, which is followed by addiction treatment. When treatment is complete, an individualized aftercare plan helps you navigate the early weeks and months of solo recovery.

How to Find Help

Veterans and active-duty servicemen and women from all branches of the military can find help for a substance use disorder through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs mental health services.6 Active-duty Army personnel can contact the Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) for information and treatment resources.7 Active-duty Navy can find support, education and treatment resources through the Navy Alcohol Abuse Prevention (NAAP) program.8 The Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS) program offers a substance abuse program for active-duty Marines,9 and for active-duty Air Force personnel, the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment (ADAPT) program provides information and treatment resources for those needing help ending an addiction for good.10 Another healing resource for military personnel is a Strong Bonds retreat, which helps to increase resilience, reduce stressors and tighten family bonds. While Strong Bonds retreats don’t address or treat substance use disorders, they can reduce some of the factors that contribute to substance abuse and addiction.11 Retreats are available for singles, couples, and families.

Hope is the Foundation of Recovery

There are many pathways to recovery, but at its very foundation is hope, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Whether you’re a veteran struggling with a substance use disorder or a loved one trying to help your hero, holding on to hope for a better future guides your pathway forward. A high-quality, holistic treatment program is one pathway that’s research-based and proven to help people end a substance use disorder once and for all. Treatment really does work, and it can work for you.

Resources

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5587184/
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2720425/
  3. https://www.samhsa.gov/nctic/trauma-interventions
  4. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/data-sheets/OMHSP_National_Suicide_Data_Report_2005-2016_508.pdf
  5. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/ptsd-overview/basics/how-common-is-ptsd.asp
  6. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/res-vatreatmentprograms.asp
  7. https://home.army.mil/wood/index.php/my-fort/asap-services
  8. https://www.public.navy.mil/bupers-npc/support/21st_Century_Sailor/NAAP/Pages/default.aspx
  9. https://www.usmc-mccs.org/services/support/substance-abuse/
  10. https://www.airforcemedicine.af.mil/Resources/Health-Promotion/Drug-Abuse/
  11. https://strongbonds.jointservicessupport.org/
  12. https://www.militaryonesource.mil/health-wellness/mental-health/substance-abuse-and-addiction/military-policy-and-treatment-for-substance-use
Scroll to Top