Alcohol Abuse Among Veterans

Alcohol abuse affects millions of veterans, and can lead to issues such as homelessness and suicide. Specialized rehab programs are available for veterans suffering from alcohol abuse and addiction.

It’s difficult to understand the realities of being a veteran. While some retired from the armed forces decorated with honors, thousands of others struggle with broken families and mental health concerns. Many of these veterans faced multiple deployments and combat situations, and have turned to alcohol for relief from their experiences.

Veterans face wartime stress and family separation that few understand. As a result, this population experiences alcohol abuse rates much higher than those of civilians. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that those who have multiple deployments, combat exposure, and related injuries are at an even greater risk of alcohol abuse.

While treatment for alcohol abuse is available, many veterans feel unable to access this help due to stigma and mental health concerns.

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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Veterans

Exposure to combat can wreak havoc on a person’s state of well-being. Rates of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, are extremely common among those who have served in the military.

Sometimes called combat fatigue or shell shock, PTSD is a severe anxiety condition that occurs in the aftermath of a traumatic event. If not properly treated, the physical and psychological effects of PTSD can be devastating. For veterans, PTSD can be triggered by crimes, explosions, gunfire, or severe injuries.

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • insomnia
  • nightmares
  • quick to anger
  • paranoia
  • feeling of fear or helplessness
  • avoidance of certain people, places, situations, or memories
  • preoccupation with danger or perceived threats
  • becoming overly protective or guarded
  • deep need to feel prepared for anything that could happen in future, to avoid feeling surprised or shocked

Alcohol Abuse and PTSD

People with mental health disorders are more likely to experience a substance use disorder, meaning that veterans who suffer from PTSD are automatically more at risk for alcohol abuse.

Alcohol is a common tool used to distance oneself from the triggers or memories associated with PTSD. Because alcohol is a depressant, it can create short-term feelings of calm and distraction from disturbing thoughts.

However, these pleasant effects are temporary. Because they don’t last, a person may begin drinking more often or drinking larger amounts, in an attempt to recreate the escape that alcohol brings them. This can lead to many different health problems, including physical dependence on alcohol.

When someone has a substance use disorder and an additional mental health concern, it is called a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder. Nearly 8 million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder, and these cases require holistic treatment to address both conditions.

The National Institutes of Health also states that the combination of alcohol and PTSD can result in a lowered ability to engage in social and professional relationships — making a veteran’s return to civilian life that much more difficult.

The Impacts Of Alcohol Abuse On Veterans

While many people may see alcohol as a socially acceptable way to cope, studies show that heavy drinking makes PTSD and other mental health conditions worse. Instead of bettering the situation, alcohol abuse can contribute to a number of additional social concerns.

Some of the alcohol-related issues that veterans struggle with include:

Veteran Homelessness

Although significant progress has been made to end veteran homelessness, there is much more work to be done. In 2017, approximately 40,000 veterans were experiencing homelessness, and 15,000 were unsheltered or living on the street.

While alcohol may not be a factor in each of these cases, alcohol abuse and addiction play a significant role in the lives of thousands of homeless veterans.

Self-Harm and Suicide

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are approximately 20 veteran suicides per day in the U.S., and 14 of those are not under VA care. A veteran’s risk for suicide is 22 percent higher than that of a civilian, and male veterans are especially at risk for suicide.

If you or someone you know is a veteran in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, please call the Veterans Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255 or text 838255. Crisis intervention can connect veterans to key social services, such as healthcare and employment.

Difficulty returning home

After returning from war or deployment, veterans have unique physical and mental health needs. A positive support system is a critical requirement, and without it, veterans and active duty military are at further risk for alcohol abuse. There are many social services for those returning to civilian life, and ensuring a veteran stays connected to these services could save their life.

Signs Of Alcohol Abuse In Veterans

Alcohol consumption is a big part of American culture and is especially common among those in the military. This can make it difficult to tell when a person’s drinking has progressed into alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence.

Signs of alcohol abuse include:

  • anxiety
  • defensiveness about alcohol
  • DUIs or arrests related to alcohol
  • hiding drinks
  • drinking more than they meant to
  • mental obsession with alcohol
  • blackouts (loss of memory while drinking)
  • unsuccessful attempts to cut back or quit drinking
  • withdrawal symptoms such as shakiness, headaches, and depression

Alcohol Abuse Treatment Options For Veterans

It’s important to be aware of the signs of alcohol abuse among veterans, in order to continue serving those who have defended our country. Although alcoholism is a progressive, incurable disease, there are effective treatments available for those who may be suffering.

To respect the needs of this population, there are customized alcohol rehab programs for both active duty and retired members of the U.S. military. Many of these programs offer financial scholarships, especially for those who have served in the military.

Alcohol rehab programs can be inpatient (residential) or outpatient (day or half-day treatment). Treatment includes alcohol detox programs, medication-assisted treatment, and therapies such as individual counseling, 12-step education, and trauma therapy.

For veterans suffering from a co-occurring disorder, treatment options are available to treat alcohol use disorder as well as PTSD and other mental health conditions.

For more information on alcohol abuse among veterans, or to find a treatment center near you, contact one of our specialists today.

National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Alcohol Facts and Statistics

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Military

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - Co-occurring Disorders

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs - PTSD: National Center for PTSD: Trauma Reminders: Triggers, VA Programs for Homeless Veterans

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