Each November, the United States honors Veterans by celebrating Veterans Day. This holiday generally involves restaurants offering free meals to former service members and the general public offering words of thanks to reflect their gratitude for the service those individuals have given to our country.
Unfortunately, what our celebrations don’t acknowledge is the addiction veterans may face after their discharge from the military. Both active-duty and retired members of our armed forces are at a heightened risk for developing addictions.
Substance Abuse and Mental Illness Among Veterans
It is no secret that veterans have often been exposed to physically and emotionally traumatic events and that exposure to trauma increases a person’s risk for addiction. According to the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs:
- Over 20 percent of veterans with PTSD also have a substance use disorder (SUD).
- About a third of veterans seeking treatment for SUD also have PTSD.
- Around 10 percent of the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been reported to have problems with alcohol or other drugs.
- Binge drinking is a common problem for veterans with PTSD and combat experience.
- Due to the combination of SUD and mental illness, veterans have a higher risk of suicide.
According to the National Veterans Foundation, not only can alcohol and illegal drugs pose a problem for veterans, but prescription drug use is also on the rise. Because of the chronic pain many veterans experience, they may be prescribed powerful narcotics, which, over time, can lead to dependence. That dependency can evolve into addiction.
Which Veterans are at Greatest Risk?
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that the veterans who are most at risk for developing SUD:
- Have experienced multiple deployments
- Were exposed to combat
- Had physical injuries from combat
Reinforcing Traits of the Military Culture
There are certain aspects of military life that tend to hinder efforts to diagnose and treat SUD and mental illness among veterans and active duty service members. These include:
- Zero tolerance policies
- High occurrence of social drinking, with a large amount of binge drinking, starting during active duty and continuing following discharge
- Hyper-masculine culture that promotes self-reliance to overcome issues
- Fear of perceived or real consequences of being honest about mental health or substance abuse needs
- History of the military not consistently handling substance abuse or mental health needs very well, which fuels ongoing distrust
As mentioned above, it is very common for people with SUD to struggle with one or more mental health conditions and vice versa. While treating one diagnosis may make the other less severe, it is important for anyone suffering with co-occurring conditions to treat all of their conditions, as the untreated diagnosis could trigger a future relapse for the condition they have already addressed.
Help for Veterans Who Are Struggling
Whether a Veteran is dealing with SUD, mental illness, or both, there is help available through the Department of Veterans Affairs; however, individuals can also get help in the private sector. If the veteran resides in a rural area where there is no VA facility offering the needed treatment within a reasonable distance, the National Veterans Foundation reports that the government may cover private sector treatment.
There are also a number of hotlines available to help veterans who are struggling:
- The Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 and press 1
- Stop Soldier Suicide: 1-844-889-5610
- The Real Warriors Live Chat: 1-866-966-1020
- PTSD Veteran Line: 1-877-717-7873
- National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
The VA also operates the Veterans Health Library, an online resource that allows veterans and their loved ones free access to a number of health-related topics, arranged alphabetically by subject. The library articles provide stigma-free access to information to allow veterans and those closest to them to learn more about their concerns and determine if further support is needed.
If you or someone you know is a veteran who is struggling with addiction, Valley Recovery Center is here to help.