Veterans sacrifice their health and well-being to protect the safety and freedoms of the American people. Unfortunately, for many veterans, their service takes a toll on their mental health. Since many veterans encounter problems during and after their time in the military, they need access to a range of substance abuse and mental health resources.
Why Is Substance Abuse So Common Among Veterans?
Substance abuse is widespread among veterans because military life exposes them to many stressful life experiences. These experiences, in turn, may trigger a variety of physical health or mental health conditions, like:
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop when a person’s life is threatened, or they see something tragic happen to another person. PTSD triggers a range of unwanted symptoms, like a heightened sense of alertness, having frequent nightmares and experiencing inappropriate emotional reactions.
- Depression and Anxiety: Even if the experiences do not spark PTSD, they can produce depression and anxiety, which can affect someone’s mood, social interactions, concentration, sleep and energy.
- Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI): A traumatic brain injury occurs anytime the brain is damaged, usually from a violent blow to the head. TBIs can impact a person’s thoughts, judgments and emotional reactions.
- Inability To Cope With Stress: Proper stress management is a valuable tool to help relieve numerous complaints, but veterans often struggle with this as their daily stress grows.
- Difficulty Transitioning Back To Civilian Life: At times, veterans become so conditioned to performing well during military life that they find it difficult to transition back to civilian life. This situation can boost stress.
- Chronic Pain Due To Injuries: Many veterans incur physical injuries during their service. Injuries causing chronic pain pose a challenging situation, both practically and psychologically, for veterans to confront.
To deal with these stressful situations and experiences, many veterans begin looking for coping methods to reduce their stress. Although alcohol and other drug use is a negative coping skill, in moments of desperation, substance use is an effective way to temporarily lower stress. Over time, though, the stress returns.
Veteran Substance Abuse Statistics
Veterans abuse many drugs at much higher rates than their civilian counterparts. According to statistics on veterans and substance abuse compiled by a study of military veterans:
- Approximately 56.6% of Veterans drank alcohol in the last month, with 7.5% reporting heavy use
- Among veterans with combat exposure, alcohol use rates increase, with about 26.8% using alcohol heavily and 54.8% binge drinking
- Opioid use among veterans is on the rise, with prescriptions quadrupling in the VA health care system
- On average, veterans have at least three prescribers offering them two different types of opioids
- Veterans are more likely to be prescribed sedatives along with opioids, a dangerous combination that could result in overdose
- 3.5% of veterans report marijuana use in the last month
- 1.7% report other illicit drug use like cocaine, heroin or hallucinogens in the previous month
- 27% of veterans smoke cigarettes, which is significantly higher than civilians
Overall, the percent of veterans with substance abuse far surpasses civilian rates.
Which Substances Do Veterans And Active-Duty Military Members Commonly Abuse?
There is not one specific substance that members of the military are prone to using. Instead, like the general population, veterans and active-duty military members are likely to abuse a variety of substances depending on factors like substance availability and the drug’s effect veterans are hoping to achieve. However, some of the most commonly used substances among veterans include alcohol, illicit drugs and prescription drugs.
Alcohol is the most frequently used substance among veterans and active-duty military members, with nearly half of active service members binge drinking within the last year. More alarmingly, 20% of military personnel reported binge drinking each week of the past month, with the number increasing to 27% for those with intense combat exposure.
Because of zero tolerance rules for active-duty service members, the rates of illicit drug use are low. Only 2.3% of active personnel reported use in the last month, compared to 12% for people out of the military.
Rates of illicit drug use are higher for veterans, who are likely to abuse:
Because of the military’s zero-tolerance policy against illicit drugs, more active-duty service members are seeking out and abusing prescription medications. Prescription drug abuse is an emerging trend in the military, with people commonly using opioids and sedatives.
Opioids & Painkillers
Opioids block the experience of pain and can elicit a feeling of euphoria. Approximately 24% of veterans in the VA health system receive prescriptions for opioids, which can be addictive if used in excess or over an extended period.
Frequently abused opioids include:
Sedatives (Benzodiazepines and Sleeping Medications)
Doctors prescribe sedatives like benzodiazepines and sleeping medications to help with sleep and anxiety disorders. Because veterans tend to grapple with these conditions more often than members of the general population, they may be more likely to abuse benzodiazepine and sleeping medications.
When abused, benzodiazepines create a strong feeling of relaxation and sedation. Examples of common benzodiazepines include:
Sleep medications help someone fall asleep and stay asleep. Abuse happens when someone uses more of the drug than prescribed or for a longer period. Examples of popular sleeping medications include Ambien and Lunesta.
PTSD And Substance Abuse In Veterans
PTSD and substance abuse in veterans go hand-in-hand. Being a veteran increases the risk of substance abuse, but being a veteran with PTSD further increases the risk of addiction.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after a life-threatening situation. Someone with PTSD will encounter a range of symptoms, such as:
- Frequently thinking about the event
- Avoiding people, places and situations that remind them of the event
- Undesirable thinking patterns or emotions
- Being easily startled or scared
Substance Abuse And Mental Health Treatment Options For Veterans
Veterans benefit from specialized addiction treatment, and there are many choices for members and former members of the military to get the help they need and deserve.
The Office of Veterans Affairs offers a comprehensive set of programs to help vets overcome the challenges of substance use and other mental health concerns, like:
- VA Substance Abuse Programs: The VA provides substance abuse assessments and referrals to the most appropriate level of care for the person’s needs.
- Veterans Crisis Line: Vets can call 877-222-8387 to access available resources for military members in need.
- Counseling and Therapy: With Veteran Training online self-help, smartphone apps, telemental health and other innovative programs, the VA emphasizes ease and convenience of services.
The VA may also offer:
- Military sexual trauma counseling
- Readjustment counseling
- Grief counseling
- Employment counseling
Veteran-Specific Drug Rehab Centers
Veterans can benefit from a continuum of veteran-specific rehab services like:
- Medical Detox: For people physically dependent on alcohol, opioids, sedatives or other problematic substances, a period of medical detox can help them process and remove drugs from the body safely and comfortable while reducing withdrawal symptoms.
- Inpatient Drug Rehab: Inpatient drug rehab is an intensive treatment option for people with severe addictions, limited supports or a history of poor outcomes from other treatments. Inpatient and residential treatments offer 24-hour care.
- Outpatient Rehab: Outpatient treatment allows the person to live at home and work while attending treatment. Outpatient options are best for people with available supports and less complex addictions.
- Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): MAT involves using medications to manage withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings for more drugs. MAT is helpful during all stages of substance abuse treatment when clinically cleared.
- Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment: Many people with substance use problems have other mental health disorders as well. Co-occurring or dual diagnosis treatments can target all mental health symptoms simultaneously for the best outcomes.
- Aftercare: Treatment for substance use disorders is an ongoing process, which means when one type of treatment ends, the person should continue seeking out additional services and supports. Aftercare helps people locate these resources for continued sobriety after formal treatment.
If you are a veteran in need of professional mental health services for addiction or you know a one who does, contact The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health today. Speaking to a representative can help you start the treatment you need to achieve the lifestyle you deserve.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Substance Abuse in the Military.” March 2013. Accessed August 16, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.” January 2019. Accessed August 16, 2019.
Teeters, Jenni B., et al. “Substance Use Disorders in Military Veterans: Prevalence and Treatment Challenges.” Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, August 2017. Accessed August 16, 2019.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “VA Mental Health Services.” June 14, 2019. August 16, 2019.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “VA National Suicide Data Report 2005-2016.” September 2018. Accessed August 16, 2019.