Veterans sacrifice their lives to protect the country and their loved ones. They give up their safety, security and the comfort of a normal life to address national needs and give up everything at a moment’s notice.
We have all learned about the importance of paying respect to our men and women in uniform, but many of us never consider what happens to them once their duty is over. Not every soldier is sent off with a ceremony to live a comfortable post-military life.
On the contrary, many returns from deployment to face months of struggles and hidden anguish, winding up with an other-than-honorable discharge that leaves them lost and jobless. The psychological consequences of war, along with the stigma of mental illness in the military, leaves many veterans struggling to cope with their feelings of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Veterans are scared. They’re scared about their future. They’re scared to speak up. They’re scared to get help. Like many people, former military members turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate. Unfortunately, alcohol and drug use only make mental illness more unbearable, even if it makes the symptoms disappear for a little while.
If you’re a veteran looking for help or someone who is concerned for a loved one, you’ve come to the right place. Read on to learn more about the unique challenges and risk factors that lead to veteran drug abuse and alcohol addiction. Education fosters understanding and empathy. For veterans facing addiction, the first step toward getting help starts with realizing that you aren’t alone and there is no shame in struggling.
Veteran Drug Abuse and Addiction
The effects of war on a person vary, but they are never entirely absent. While some come home from deployment and easily return to their regular lives, many soldiers struggle to feel like themselves and forget the things they saw overseas.
Around 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers have a mental health problem. That’s approximately 730,000 men and women who are wrestling with the terrifying and debilitating symptoms of conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
When they come home, some soldiers are afraid to ask for help. They may feel weak compared to their comrades who seem to be getting along just fine, reuniting with their families and friends without much of a problem.
The emotional and mental consequences of war, coupled with the struggle of trying to assimilate to civilian life, can cause a veteran to turn to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms. These aren’t always illegal substances, either. Many of those who do reach out for help are prescribed anxiety and PTSD medication that opens the floodgate for future substance use.
The prevalence of veteran substance use disorder is more common than you’d think. A 2013 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that one out of 15 veterans had a substance use disorder in the last year.
The Challenge of Reintegration
Major changes in life can be difficult for anyone. Whether it’s triggered by moving to a new city or getting married, there are many people who struggle with the transition and suffer from mental health problems as a result. Depression and anxiety are common side effects of major changes, but for many, the problem is much deeper.
Returning to civilian life after months or even a year or more in a war zone is beyond stressful. It’s not uncommon for a veteran to return home and feel like an outsider in their own life, disconnected from their loved ones and incapable of being the person they once were.
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs lays out the following as some of the biggest readjustment challenges returning veterans face.
- Relating to those who don’t understand what soldiers go through overseas
- Reconnecting with a family who may have established new roles and dynamics in the soldier’s absence
- Preparing to find a new job outside of the military
- Adapting to structure and a daily routine
- Adjusting to new workflow and slower, calmer lifestyle
- Connecting with veteran resources and services
Life in the military can be all-consuming even when you’re on a base. The sense of community and purpose is clearly defined, and military personnel becomes accustomed to doing things in a very particular manner. Overseas, that culture is multiplied tenfold. The intensity of life in a war zone is difficult for any civilian to comprehend, leading to feelings of isolation among those who try to rejoin society.
No soldier is absent from the hearts and minds of their loved ones during deployment, but as the saying goes, “life goes on.” People have to continue working, caring for their families and leading their own lives while their loved one is gone on deployment.
The elation they feel returning home can quickly be snuffed out by the feeling of disconnect. They aren’t sure who they are any more or where they fit in, and many returning soldiers feel like they don’t have what it takes to truly be a normal person again.
Substance use disorder occurs when people begin turning to drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with discomfort and mental illness. Rather than addressing the symptoms, people try to repress them. But this solution never really works. In fact, it only leads to greater difficulty and starts a nasty cycle that many spend years trying to escape.
Veteran Opioid Addiction
While chronic pain is a widespread problem for around 20 percent of Americans, it’s even more common among veterans. Around 60 percent of soldiers returning from the Middle East and 50 percent of older veterans live with chronic pain.
In recent years, the opioid epidemic has changed the way doctors treat chronic pain. However, many physicians often used to prescribe opiates like Vicodin to treat conditions. These powerful prescription painkillers can lay the groundwork for an opioid addiction that quickly spirals into heroin and other substances.
Among the opioid epidemic, veterans face an even higher risk than others. Approximately 680,000 veterans with opioid prescriptions struggle with addiction. A 2013 study found that prescriptions for opioids among veterans increased 270 percent in a 12-year period.
Opioids and other painkillers can help many people, but there are also other non-medicinal ways to treat chronic pain that can be equally effective with enough commitment. Medical yoga therapy and mindfulness practice can help people alleviate symptoms, reduce stress and release tension that can often make chronic pain feel worse.
Veteran PTSD and Substance Use Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder affects millions of people worldwide, but the exact percentage of soldiers with PTSD is still unknown, partially because so many never reach out and get a proper diagnosis.
PTSD has a lot of risk factors, including a person’s past experiences of mental illness, childhood trauma, poor social support and additional stress after a traumatic event.
Some soldiers will witness horrific things, find a way to process them in a healthy way and move on. Others will not be as fortunate. The fact of the matter is that no one knows exactly why two people can witness the same tragedy and have vastly different reactions, but we do know that PTSD is real and it needs to be treated.
Suicide and Substance Use Disorder Among Veterans With PTSD
Every year, veteran suicide accounts for 14 percent of all suicides in the United States.
A 2016 study by the Department of Veteran Affairs found that about 20 veterans commit suicide every day, and 70 percent of all these victims did not regularly utilize VA services.
It’s possible that a former soldier may not even understand their own feelings. People who lack a diagnosis often internalize their emotions and believe that they are broken, defective and otherwise damaged. They blame themselves, not a disorder, for their feelings.
PTSD is different for everyone. A person has to meet the following criteria to be diagnosed with PTSD:
- At least one re-experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks or nightmares
- At least one avoidance symptom, such as avoiding objects, people or places that remind them of the trauma
- At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
- At least two cognitive and/or mood symptoms
Arousal and reactivity symptoms are intense reactions to stimuli that trigger PTSD. These things can be different for every person, and they may be more exaggerated in some veterans. A reactive symptom might be appearing on edge or being easily startled, or it could be lashing out in anger or feeling stressed and unable to focus on anything throughout the day.
Mood symptoms can range from loss of interest in once-enjoyable activities to difficulty concentrating or recalling past traumatic events.
There is no right way to experience a mental illness. Even if someone doesn’t exhibit the same symptoms as others, their feelings are real and scary to them. PTSD is difficult for many soldiers to admit to because there is a sense of weakness associated with the diagnosis.
Soldiers want to go to war and come back strong. They were trained to fight. It’s their job. However, many do not realize that their job comes with greater risks. A veteran with PTSD may also feel overwhelming guilt for struggling with anxiety because they witnessed comrades get critically injured or even killed. The fact that they’re alive and well should be enough for them to move on, so they suffer in silence instead of getting help from a professional.
Drinking, drugs and substance use provide an outlet for the overwhelming and often paralyzing emotions that are associated with PTSD.
Veteran Risk Factors for Alcohol and Drug Use
Former soldiers are at a higher risk of developing a co-occurring substance use disorder because deployment elevates the risk of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Around one-third of all veterans who seek help for substance use disorder also have PTSD. When a person is already struggling with mental illness, substance use can worsen the effects.
When a person drinks or self-medicates with drugs, they begin to isolate themselves further. Relationships with family, friends, and coworkers deteriorate, which only reinforces feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Most people never intend to develop a substance use problem. Painkillers and sleeping medications prescribed by a doctor can lead to an unexpected addiction. Alcohol and drug misuse quickly escalate to dangerous levels, and substance use disorder often creeps up on people without a conscious decision involved.
The Department of Veteran Affairs Alcohol and Drug Dependence Rehabilitation Program is designed specifically to help veterans treat substance use disorder and co-occurring mental illnesses.
In a VA treatment program, there are various resources and services that help guide a veteran through the various stages of recovery. Some of the programs include:
- Alcohol and drug substance use screening
- Medically supervised detoxification programs
- Outpatient counseling services
- Intensive outpatient programs (IOP)
- Residential care
- Marriage and family counseling to assist in relationship building
- Support groups
- Drug substitution therapies to help reduce cravings and manage withdrawal
- Specialized programs for women, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and homeless vets
There are also many treatment programs through the VA that do not involve drug use. PTSD education and therapy, couples counseling and relapse prevention are all-inclusive aspects of the program designed to help people move forward with their lives.
Those in crisis can call 1-800-273-8255 or text 838255 for emergency counseling. Female veterans can call 1-855-VA-WOMEN (1-855-82-96636) to speak confidentially about issues specific to women.
Family and friends should relay this information to a veteran in need as well as practice empathy and encourage treatment. It isn’t easy to watch someone you care about suffer, but social support plays a major role in recovery.
With encouragement, empathy, and patience, a veteran can get the help they need to recover from substance use, treat PTSD and go on to live the rewarding, happy life they deserve.