drug treatment

Reentering civilian life can come with unique challenges for veterans and returning members of the military, and for some veterans, life after combat often brings about physical, emotional and psychological changes that lead to dependence on alcohol and drugs long after military service has ended.

The war experience can be deeply traumatizing and painful, and to cope with its aftereffects, many self-medicate to alleviate their symptoms. It is not uncommon for veterans to drink, smoke and use other drugs to manage their mental and emotional health, but not without consequences.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are seen in the VA have a problem with alcohol or other drugs.

  • 19%

    of veterans of military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are diagnosed with substance abuse or chemical dependence.

  • 75%

    of Vietnam War veterans meet the criteria for substance abuse according to the Department of Defence and Veterans Affairs.

  • 27%

    of veterans in VA care who are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder also have Substance Use Disorder.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, military personnel with multiple deployments and combat exposure are more susceptible to problem substance use. They are at greater risk of heavy drinking during the week as well as binge drinking, which may be prompted by bad memories of wartime. Further, they are more likely to have alcohol and other drug-related problems and use prescribed behavioral health medications in greater amounts. NIDA also says they are more likely to begin smoking or relapse to smoking.

Veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other disorders develop addictions to recreational drugs as well as prescribed medications. Oftentimes, these conditions lead to excessive smoking, drinking and drug use, which can sometimes lead to more severe outcomes such as long-term damage and even death in some cases.

Addiction is often times a sign in many veterans of an underlying and more severe anxiety disorder or brain damage. Although it can affect individuals differently, the overlying disorders typically remain the same throughout different people.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that happens after the affected person experiences a stressful, traumatic life-changing event. For veterans, that can include combat, physical or sexual assault, terrorist attack, serious accident or natural disaster.

Military men and women who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq have struggled with PTSD, and data show they are more likely to struggle with problem drinking that can become alcohol abuse. Signs and symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Unwanted memories of traumatic events
  • Flashbacks that include reliving an event to the point where the person loses touch with reality
  • Emotional numbness, detachment from family, friends
  • Nightmares
  • Scary thoughts
  • Extreme anxiety, heightened alertness or awareness for threats
  • Pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Anger issues
  • Distractions

According to RAND, at least 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD and/or Depression. (Military counselors interviewed state that, in their opinion, the percentage of veterans with PTSD is much higher; the number climbs higher when combined with TBI.)

Traumatic Brain Injury

Traumatic Brain Injury occurs when sudden trauma injures the head and damages brain. Severity levels range from mild, moderate or severe and vary according to how serious the injury is. Mild TBI symptoms include headache, confusion, lightheadedness, dizziness, blurred vision and more. Studies show that alcohol use of people with traumatic brain injury worsens two to five years after the injury occurs and that they turn to their prior levels of substance use unless something prevents that from happening.

Due to certain cases involving brain traumatic injuries, sometimes veterans develop a dependence on opioid medication that was originally prescribed to treat pain. According to an article published in The Minneapolis Tribune, nearly 60 percent of veterans returning from war during the past decade report that chronic pain is their common medical problem.

From 2002 to 2013, the number of prescription medication from the VA for oxycodone and morphine saw a 259 percent increase in the U.S.
A dependence on pain medication may include the following signs or symptoms. This list is not in inclusive:

  • High anxiety levels
  • Anxiety attacks
  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Low motivation
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Using opioids for longer periods than intended

PTSD and Substance Use Disorder

To cope with their PTSD, veterans may develop Substance Use Disorder, also known as Drug Use Disorder. The condition can range from mild, moderate to severe, and the level of severity is determined by the individual. Self-medicating can numb sufferers to their emotions, further worsening symptoms of already feeling cuts off from others because of their PTSD.

Using substances also allows PTSD sufferers to avoid their struggles. While using allows them to focus on other things, they may find it hard to focus and live a productive life in the long run. Other signs and symptoms of a substance use disorder:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Easily distracted
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty with decision-making
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Repetition when speaking
  • Easily angered or agitated
  • Impulsive

According to a RAND study, 50% of those with PTSD do not seek treatment and out of the half that seek treatment, only half of them get “minimally adequate” treatment.

Seeking treatment

Getting professional help to manage PTSD and SUD is important to the veterans’ recovery and necessary to return to healthy living. Abusing alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism for mental health disorders can be mentally and physically debilitating with extended use. Struggling to overcome these challenges can lead to long-term unemployment, dysfunctional social behavior and strained relationships, among other challenges.

  • PTSD

    According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in general, people with PTSD and SUD show improvement when being treated for both conditions concurrently.

  • military veterans treatment

    Treatments include cognitive behavioral treatments, and psychological treatments specifically for PTSD. Others may want to seek behavioral couples therapy and medications that help manage PTSD and SUD conditions.

  • military substance abuse disorders

    According to NIDA, early intervention for service members should include a screening of military personnel upon their return from deployment to see whether they are suffering from substance abuse disorders.


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