Addiction is a problem that has spread across all of America, reaching every corner of the country and affecting all demographics. Military veterans are no exception. In fact, substance abuse is incredibly prevalent amongst veterans. This comes as no shock—veterans of the military are incredibly susceptible to drug and alcohol use.

Co-Occurring Disorders

To understand the correlation between veterans and addiction, we must first understand the co-occurring disorders that accompany addiction. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, affects an astonishing 15% of military combat veterans. PTSD is not limited to those who have served in combat zones—it is also diagnosed after other traumatic experiences, such as sexual assault. An astonishing 23% of female veterans have reported being sexually assaulted during their time in the military—and those are just the ones willing to report it! PTSD has a plethora of serious symptoms, such as flashbacks, memory problems, trouble sleeping, and aggression. These symptoms, often triggered by situations that bring back memories of the traumatic incident, can lead to the decay of relationships and self-destructive behavior.

When tackling the problem of addiction among military veterans, it’s important to acknowledge any co-occurring disorders. This way, the co-occurring disorder can be treated alongside addiction, which will offer a higher success rate than treating one at a time.

Prescription Medications

One of the most common substances that veterans become addicted to is prescription medications. Often, veterans are prescribed medicines to combat things such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or bodily injuries. Many of these prescription painkillers, anxiety medications and sleep aids are extremely addictive. If they take the medication for an extended period of time, veterans may develop not only a dependence on the drug but also a tolerance—meaning they will require higher and higher dosages. Additionally, if they are taken off of the medication, they may experience withdrawal symptoms that lead them to seek other substances to fill the gap. While many veterans start taking prescription medications with good intentions, they may be on a slippery slope towards addiction.

Alcohol and Illicit Drug Use

The use of illicit drugs is strictly prohibited in the military. Because of this, few service members use illicit drugs for fear of receiving a dishonorable discharge. Conversely, alcohol is not prohibited by the military. Actually, it is considered a part of the military culture. An estimated 20% of service members reported engaging in binge drinking behavior at least once a week. This unhealthy habit very easily carries over into civilian life, and can easily spiral out of control. Additionally, as we discussed earlier, people who become dependent on one substance and develop a tolerance are likely to turn to other illicit substances in search of new highs.

Treatment

Veterans have a variety of resources available for addiction treatment than the average civilian. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers treatment options that cater specifically to the needs of those with military experience. The VA often offers these services free of charge, meaning that veterans without the ability to find an affordable civilian rehab program can still get the help that they need. The VA has options for inpatient and outpatient rehab, group therapy, family counseling, PTSD treatment, and one-on-one counseling. The downside is that seeking treatment through the VA can be a lengthier process and immediate treatment is almost never an option. Fortunately, there are plenty of drug addiction rehabilitation facilities outside of the VA that are qualified to help veterans, including those with co-occurring disorders.

Conclusion

The problem of addiction affects all of our country, including the men and women that serve in our military. As a nation, it is important that we support our military members. This includes supporting them after their service has ended. Being in the military is stressful, even more so during wartime. The complications of serving in the military are extremely conducive to cultivating addiction, whether it is to alcohol, illicit drugs, or prescription medications. Veterans often struggle with co-occurring disorders that may have ultimately lead them towards addiction, and it is crucial that these co-occurring disorders are taken into consideration while treating addiction. The Department of Veterans Affairs provides specialized, affordable care for military veterans, however it is not always expeditious. If you or someone you love are a veteran struggling with substance abuse, find help as soon as possible!