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Veterans And Substance Abuse

Brenda Munnerlyn, RN, BSN

Medically reviewed by

Brenda Munnerlyn, RN, BSN

February 4, 2019

There are many treatment options for veterans who are struggling with a drug or alcohol dependency. Among the most common are counseling, medication, and finding comfort in a support group of individuals who share or had similar experiences and obstacles.

The United States Department of Labor reports that more than 1 million Americans are serving and protecting our nation in various areas of duty, ranging from combat specialty to mechanics to media and public affairs. This number includes all military personnel in the five U.S. branches of service combined, covering those enlisted in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard in addition to the military reserve units, Air National Guard and Army National Guard.

This group of people are made up of arguably some of the bravest, most selfless individuals that exist, giving portions of their life—if not their entire life—to help defend the United States. However, carrying this type of burden doesn’t always come without a cost, and sometimes that cost comes in the form of substance abuse.

Military Personnel and Illegal Drug Addiction

Numbers provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) show that certain substances are more problematic for military personnel than for civilians.

For example, while the use of illicit drugs is lower for this segment of the population (with 2.3 percent of military personnel using cocaine, heroin, and other illegal drugs as opposed to 12 percent of the population at large), the misuse of prescription drugs is overall higher. And it appears to be increasing.

NIDA suggests that this may be at least partly due to the Department of Defense (DoD) having a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to illegal substances. On the flip side, drugs that are available by medical personnel are not only more permissible, they’re more readily available and easier to get.

Case in point: NIDA reports that painkillers were prescribed four times more often in 2009 to military personnel than they were in 2001, with more than 3.8 million total service members having access to this type of drug.

This contributes to what the Department of Health & Human Services calls “The Opioid Epidemic.” This has resulted in a situation in which addiction—sometimes causing overdose and death—is more prevalent because opiates are so accessible.

Service Members and Alcohol Abuse

Another substance that appears to be a greater problem for military personnel than civilians is alcohol. NIDA shares that 20 percent of service members binge drink on a weekly basis, but that amount increasing to 27 percent if the soldier has been involved in combat-type scenarios. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) points out that the issues don’t necessarily stop there.

According to the NCADD, “difficulties in civilian life—setbacks such as job loss, divorce and financial problems—all common for returning vets—may push as many as 13 percent of vets toward drinking and drugs.”

In other words, when military personnel return from duty and are faced with obstacles related to acclimating to civilian life, they have a greater likelihood of seeking solace in drugs and/or alcohol. This can become an even greater issue if the service member has PTSD.

Military Vets and PTSD

PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As the American Psychiatric Association explains, it is “a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.”

Individuals with PTSD commonly have nightmares and flashbacks of the event that has caused them distress. Because of this, they tend to avoid things that remind them of what happened and often react with anger or irritation when something occurs that reignites a memory.

What does this mean for our nation’s military vets?

The Nebraska Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) states that while 7.8 percent of U.S. citizens will develop PTSD at some point in their lives, that amount increases to 30 percent for military personnel who have served in areas of active combat. Add this to the 20 to 25 percent of service members with what the Nebraska-based VA calls “clinically serious stress reaction symptoms”—like what is seen with those who served in Vietnam—and a vet’s likelihood of developing some type of stress disorder can easily be 50 percent or more.

While the actual risk amount varies depending on the war and era of service, one thing is clear: our nation’s protectors and keepers of the peace are at serious risk of addiction and the issues that can result. Why?

Why Substance Abuse Is So Problematic for Our Nation’s Vets

In “Understanding Substance Use Disorders,” authors from the Committee on Prevention, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Management of Substance Use Disorders in the U.S. Armed Forces and those working with the Board on the Health of Select Population and the Institute of Medicine indicated that substance abuse among military personnel is higher for a number of reasons.

For instance, they point out that heavy drinking “has become part of the military work culture and has been used for recreation, as well as to reward hard work, to ease interpersonal tensions, and to promote unit cohesion and camaraderie.” It also helps the individual manage “challenges of war, the alcohol being used in part as an aid in coping with stressful or traumatic events and as self-medication for mental health problems.”

The book also stresses that service members may become hooked on illegal or prescription drugs as a way to reduce the pain and fatigue that are common in military roles. They may also be used to help the individual survive in times of combat-related stress or even boredom.

Veterans, Suicide Risk, and Substance Abuse

The Center for Deployment Psychology states that veterans have traditionally had lower rates of suicide when compared to the general population. However, that trend has appeared to change in recent years, sometimes because of the same types of stressors that lead vets to abuse drugs and alcohol. Furthermore, the CDP reports that, for some reason, this increased suicide risk is especially problematic for Army personnel.

One piece of research cited by the CDP found that “suicide was the first leading cause of death for female veterans and the second-leading cause of death for male veterans.” The issues behind this higher suicide risk include poor personal relationships, work-related stressors, legal and financial issues, and, sometimes, mental problems.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) adds that “substance use is involved in many of these suicides.” Specifically, the institute says that approximately 29 percent of military suicides have involved the use of some type of illegal drug or alcoholic beverage and, as of 2009, one-third of those who had committed suicide were on a prescription drug at the time.

Consequences of Substance Abuse for Military Vets

In addition to increased suicide risk, Justice for Vets highlights many of the other negative consequences that our nation’s service members face when they develop a drug and/or alcohol addiction. These include homelessness, unemployment, criminal conviction and incarceration, sexual trauma, and mental health disorders.

Veteran Homelessness

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans shares that almost 40,000 vets are homeless at any given time (an amount representing roughly 11 percent of the adult homeless population), and these numbers on the rise. Approximately one in five homeless men are vets and more than half have at least some type of disability.

The Coalition goes on to say that substance abuse is a contributing factor to this number, affecting 70 percent of the veterans who are homeless. Other factors include PTSD, unaffordable housing, and poor access to proper medical care.

Veteran Unemployment

In March 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that male U.S. Military vets had an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent whereas female veterans had a slightly higher unemployment rate at 5.4 percent. The actual rate varied by region though, with Iowa having the lowest (1.9 percent) and the District of Columbia having the highest (7.7 percent).

Among these 495,000 unemployed vets, almost 60 percent were at 45 years of age or older whereas approximately 37 percent of the veterans without jobs were between the ages of 25 and 44. This is critical as many pieces of research, such as one published in Current Drug Abuse Reviews, have found a link between substance abuse and unemployment.

In this case specifically, researchers found that substance abuse contributed to unemployment and also that unemployment leaded to substance abuse, making it a double-edged sword. They also noted that “unemployment increases the risk of relapse after alcohol and drug addiction treatment,” potentially compounding the issue even further.

Veteran Incarceration

Numbers provided by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) indicate that veteran incarceration is on the decline, dropping from 203,000 to 181,500 in eight years’ time. However, not all the statistics related to this portion of the population are as positive.

For instance, the DOJ also states that, for this same time frame, about one-half of all incarcerated vets had some type of mental disorder. This amount increased to just under two-thirds if the veteran had been involved in combat.

The Drug Policy Alliance expanded on this issue even more by citing a survey of vets from Iraq and Afghanistan that found a link between substance abuse and criminal history. In it, they prompt healthcare professionals to “consider non-PTSD factors when evaluating and treating veterans with criminal justice involvement.”

Veteran Sexual Trauma

Another contributing factor to veteran substance abuse is military sexual trauma. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) explains that military sexual trauma is “sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that occurred while the Veteran was in the military.” The behaviors that fall into this category range from offensive remarks to unwanted touching, and many other actions that lie somewhere in between.

According to a fact sheet provided by the VA, this type of trauma is present for one in four military women and one in 100 military men. The VA also says that some of those violated consume drugs and/or alcohol to “cope with the memories or emotional reactions” or to “fall asleep.”

Veteran Mental Health Disorders

In addition to PTSD, military vets have a higher rate of certain types of mental health disorders according to the National Veterans Foundation (NVF). This includes depression, with one out of every five veterans diagnosed with this sometimes-debilitating sadness having a traumatic brain injury too.

The NVF also shares that there are many reasons that vets choose to not seek treatment for these types of conditions. Some of the top ones are feeling embarrassed about the condition or “fear of being seen as weak”; the lengthy waiting times to get into some type of treatment; and trouble finding transportation to and from appointment sessions.

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Signs of Veteran Substance Abuse

How do you know if you or a veteran you love has substance abuse issues? The Veterans Healing Initiative has provided a list of possible signs.

Some top symptoms include:

  • Using drugs or alcohol to cope with things that are bothersome to you
  • Hiding your drug or alcohol use from those around you
  • Isolating yourself so you can drink and/or use drugs
  • Continuing to use drugs and alcohol even when they make you feel worse
  • Being unable to stop your drug or alcohol use despite efforts to stop
  • Engaging in behaviors while under the influence that you wouldn’t normally do sober
  • A noticeable decline in personal hygiene and appearance
  • Frequent mood changes
  • Poor work performance or loss of job due to substance abuse issue

How to Help a Veteran with Substance Abuse Issues

Fortunately, there are many treatment options for veterans who are struggling with a drug or alcohol dependency. Among the most common are counseling, medication, and finding comfort in a support group of individuals who share or had similar experiences and obstacles.

Although cost can sometimes stop veterans from seeking treatment or help for any issues they face, whether substance abuse-related or otherwise, there are actually many free resources available to veterans and their families.

Among those offered online, these include:

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) – links to information about reintegrating into civilian life, grants available to help, and other various resources.
  • USA Cares – provides programs for vets injured in combat, housing programs, emergency assistance, job assistance, and more.
  • GiveForward – links to various resources for vets; also has the option for you to create a fundraiser to raise money to help support a vet in your life.
  • Office of General Counsel – helps vets find free legal counsel.
  • MilitaryOneClick – check out resources available to vets seeking financial assistance, housing, or a job, as well as various advocacy groups that can help you get your entitled VA benefits.
  • The Soldiers Project – this site links you to some great veteran-based resources, and also provides links to books and other written resources if you’d like more information on this topic.

Need More Help?

If you are a veteran, or a friend or family member of someone who has served and is struggling to adapt upon his or her return, we’re here to help. The trusted, compassionate, and professional staff at Rehab Center is here to assist you or the person you love 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

United States Department of Labor - Military Careers

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Drug Abuse in the Military

HHS.Gove - Opioids Factsheet

American Psychiatric Association - What is PTSD?

NCBI - Substance Use Disorders in the U.S. Armed Forces

Deployment Psych - Suicide

Justice for Vets - VTC Impact

National Coalition for Homeless Veterans - Background & Statistics

Bureau of Labor Statistics - Employment Situation of Veterans Summary

NCBI - Unemployment and substance use: a review of the literature (1990-2010).

US Department of Justics - Veterans in Prison and Jail, 2011–12

Drug Policy - Healing a Broken System: Veterans and the War on Drugs

US Department of Veterans Affairs - Mental Health

US Department of Veterans Affairs - General Factsheet

Lifeline for Vets - Troubling Veteran Mental Health Facts and Statistics that Need to be Addressed

Veterans Healing Initiative - Recognizing Signs of Substance Abuse

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