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Impact of Substance Abuse on Veterans’ Families: Challenges & Support

Written by The Recovery Village

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Kevin Wandler, MD

Medically Reviewed

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Last Updated - 06/30/2024

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Updated 06/30/2024

Key Takeaways

  • Substance misuse among veterans is prevalent, with alcohol and prescription drugs like opioids being the most commonly misused substances.
  • Mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety are significant contributors to substance misuse in veterans.
  • Transitioning to civilian life poses additional stress, which can exacerbate substance misuse issues in veterans.
  • The emotional, financial, and social impacts of substance misuse extend to veterans’ families, causing distress and potential economic hardship.
  • Comprehensive treatment for veterans with substance use disorders should address co-occurring mental health conditions and involve medication, counseling, and therapy.
  • Resources and support are available for veterans and their families, including VA services, community providers under the MISSION Act, and addiction treatment facilities like The Recovery Village.

The Impact of Substance Abuse on Veterans’ Families: Challenges & Support

Substance misuse among veterans extends beyond the individual to profoundly impact their families in multiple dimensions.

  • Emotional Toll: Families experience significant emotional distress, anxiety, and helplessness witnessing their loved one’s struggle with addiction. The research highlights that this burden is exacerbated during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, which increased substance use and mental health challenges.
  • Personality Changes and Family Dynamics: Substance misuse can lead to profound personality changes in veterans, straining family relationships and altering the dynamics within the household.
  • Financial Stress: Treatment costs, potential loss of income, and economic burdens from substance misuse impose considerable financial strain on families. The study on substance use disorders (SUDs) in veterans indicates that misuse of substances like opioids, often prescribed for pain management, has risen, leading to increased healthcare costs and economic strain on families.
  • Social Isolation and Stigma: The findings suggest families may face social isolation and stigma within military and civilian communities, hindering their ability to seek support and exacerbating the challenges of reintegration.

Emotional Impacts

Substance misuse among veterans leads to emotional upheaval within families, affecting relationships and stability.

  • Increased Conflict and Distress: Partners of veterans with PTSD and substance misuse often experience heightened stress and dissatisfaction in relationships, impacting overall family cohesion.
  • Impact on Children: Children in these families may experience insecurity and exposure to unpredictable behavior, affecting their emotional well-being and stability.
  • Broader Social Impact: Substance misuse strains relationships beyond immediate family, affecting interactions with friends and extended family members.

Economic Strain 

The financial implications of substance misuse among veterans place significant burdens on their families.

  • Treatment Costs and Loss of Income: Families face high costs associated with addiction treatment, potential loss of employment for veterans, and reduced household income.
  • Healthcare Expenses and Legal Issues: Substance misuse increases healthcare expenses and may lead to legal repercussions, adding to financial stress.
  • Long-term Impact: Families may face bankruptcy or homelessness if substance misuse leads to chronic unemployment or severe economic hardship.

Social Consequences 

Substance misuse affects veterans’ families socially, leading to isolation and strained relationships.

  • Social Isolation: Substance misuse, as indicated in a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, often isolates veterans and their families from social support networks, exacerbating feelings of loneliness and depression.
  • Stigma and Barriers to Help: Stigma surrounding substance use and mental health issues within the military community can deter families from seeking necessary support.
  • Altered Family Dynamics: Substance misuse can cause tension and conflict within families, contributing to social withdrawal and strained relationships.

Contributing Factors: Substance Abuse Among Veterans

Substance misuse among veterans is a complex issue influenced by various psychological, social, and environmental factors. One significant contributor is the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from traumatic military experiences. PTSD often co-occurs with substance use disorders (SUDs), as veterans may turn to substances to cope with symptoms like hyperarousal and intrusive memories.

  • PTSD and Substance Use: The PTSD: National Center for PTSD emphasizes that PTSD and SUDs frequently co-occur, complicating treatment efforts. Veterans may use substances to alleviate PTSD symptoms, leading to a cycle of dependency.
  • Transition Stress:  Research published in NCBI highlights that the transition from military to civilian life poses significant challenges. Loss of identity, social disconnection, and stress from reintegration can increase the risk of substance misuse as veterans struggle to adapt to new environments.
  • Prescription Drug Misuse: Veterans are at higher risk for misusing prescription drugs, such as opioids prescribed for pain management, as highlighted by studies found on NCBI. Accessibility and dependence on these medications can contribute to substance use issues.

Addressing these multifaceted factors holistically is crucial for effective treatment and supporting veterans’ overall well-being.

Military to Civilian Life: Transition Stress 

The transition from military to civilian life is a pivotal period where veterans often face heightened stress and increased vulnerability to substance misuse.

  • Cultural and Structural Shift: Research has shown that reculturation stress from moving from a structured military environment to civilian life can lead to feelings of dislocation and loss of identity, prompting some veterans to turn to substances as a coping mechanism.
  • Co-occurring Mental Health Disorders: PTSD, depression, and anxiety frequently persist or emerge post-service, exacerbating stress and increasing the likelihood of substance use as a means of self-medication.
  • Challenges in Reintegration: The Pew Research Center reports veterans encounter difficulties in navigating job markets, achieving financial stability, and establishing social networks outside the military, which can amplify stress and contribute to substance misuse.

Early intervention and comprehensive support during the transition phase are crucial to mitigating the risk of substance misuse among veterans.

Comprehensive Treatment and Support Strategies: Veterans with Substance Use Disorders

Veterans facing substance use disorders (SUDs) encounter complex challenges, often compounded by co-occurring mental health conditions such as PTSD and depression.

  • Prevalence and Risks: The National Center for Biotechnology Information highlights many veterans with mental health diagnoses receive opioid prescriptions, increasing the risk of opioid use disorders and adverse outcomes. Marijuana and tobacco use also pose significant health concerns within the veteran community.
  • Multifaceted Approach: SAMHSA is advocating for a substantial budget to enhance America’s behavioral health crisis care system, including expanding the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Standardized, evidence-based treatments are recommended to improve outcomes for veterans with co-occurring disorders.
  • VA Services: The US Department of Veterans Affairs offers tailored medication options, counseling, and therapy, including specialized services for female veterans and those with co-occurring disorders. Access is facilitated through programs like the MISSION Act Community Care Program and the Veterans Crisis Line.

Comprehensive Treatment Options 

Veterans have access to a range of treatment options addressing immediate needs and underlying issues related to military service.

  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT): VA provides MAT to help veterans manage cravings and achieve recovery goals, complemented by therapy for conditions like PTSD and depression.
  • MISSION Act: Allows veterans to seek healthcare from community providers under specific criteria, expanding access beyond VA facilities.
  • Specialized Facilities: Centers like The Recovery Village offer VA-approved treatment programs, providing comprehensive care from initial outreach to long-term support.
  • Integrated Treatments: For veterans with co-occurring disorders, integrated treatments targeting both substance use and mental health issues are recommended for more effective care.

Resources and Support for Families 

Families of veterans grappling with substance misuse can access tailored support resources.

  • VA Services for Families: Comprehensive services including medications, counseling, and therapies are available, with support from local VA centers and online resources like Military OneSource.
  • Community Support: Under the VA MISSION Act, organizations like CADCA advocate for integrated, evidence-based treatments and increased accessibility for veterans with co-occurring disorders. The US Department of Veterans Affairs offers medication options, counseling, and therapy tailored to veterans, including specialized services for female veterans and those with co-occurring mental health disorders.
  • Family Support: Seeking substance misuse treatment programs and family counseling helps families develop effective coping strategies and support their veterans in seeking help.
  • Education and Stigma Reduction: Military OneSource provides a portal for substance misuse resources, offering live chat, text, and phone support, including access to the Veterans Crisis Line. Educational resources on addiction and mental health issues are crucial for families to understand and support their veterans, while efforts to reduce stigma encourage veterans to seek necessary care.

Treatment for Addiction and Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders

The Recovery Village at Baptist Health is an industry-leading treatment provider for addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. Our clinicians are specially trained in trauma-informed care, military culture and treating veteran-specific addiction and mental health needs. We’re also proud members of the VA Community Care Network, so we can accept VA health benefits as payment at no cost to the veteran.

If you’re a veteran struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, our physician-led, private rehab program could be your path to recovery. Call us today and request a specialized Veteran Advocate to assist you!