Help for Veterans & Addiction
Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
Many military veterans struggle with addiction, which is why it’s important to seek help after military service for a variety of reasons.
Depending on the individual seeking treatment and the extent of their substance use disorder, comprehensive treatment that lasts one to three months is an effective approach.
Veterans & Addiction Problems
Serving in the military can be stressful and impactful, whether an individual serves during wartime or not. When a person joins the military, they are conditioned to be able to defend themselves, their country, and fellow citizens. There is a lot of preparation that goes into preparing a soldier for battle.
Conversely, fewer resources are put into acclimating those who serve in the military back to normal life after service. Many veterans from all branches of the military experience PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Many veterans from all branches of the military also experience addiction.
According to the Virginia Department of Veteran Services, alcohol abuse is the most common addiction among veterans. One study of veterans deployed to Iraq showed that 27 percent of individuals studied met the criteria for alcohol abuse.
Why Do Veterans Have High Rates of Addiction?
Instead of trying to pin the cause of addiction rates soaring among veterans on a single cause, it’s important to understand that addiction can result from a variety of factors.
Veterans often experience psychological trauma, which they may attempt to remedy with drugs, alcohol, or a combination of both. Many veterans also experience physical injuries and become susceptible to prescription drug addiction.
Addiction among veterans can lead to fatal results. Approximately 30 percent of suicides and around 20 percent of deaths due to high-risk behavior among military veterans were attributable to either alcohol use, drug use, or a combination of both.
Veteran addiction and mental health issues can be due to depression and PTSD. Veterans often use alcohol and drugs to alleviate negative baseline emotional states.
Addiction can also be attributed to genetic predisposition and certain psychological factors that might make one susceptible to substance abuse and addiction.
Veterans & PTSD
Not all veterans end up having PTSD, but it’s common among this group. PTSD is more likely for those who experience prolonged and intense combat exposure. In addition, an individual will be more susceptible to PTSD if they experience some sort of early childhood trauma.
Military veterans often try to cope with PTSD with drugs and alcohol. Substances provide an escape from the anxiety, depression, and insomnia associated with PTSD.
Besides common factors that cause depression (including experiencing death, family issues, relationship issues, and employment issues), military personnel and veterans are exposed to additional stimuli that might trigger depression.
Potential causes of depression that increase the risk of substance abuse and addiction include the following:
- Military justice actions and other legal troubles
- Complications with military benefits
- Possibility of future deployments
- Exposure to combat and traumatic events
- Trouble with employment and job searches after military service
- Relationship issues after military service
Biological & Psychological Factors
Certain individuals are simply more susceptible than others due to genetics, family history, and certain psychological factors. If there is a family history of substance abuse, that military veteran has a higher risk of developing substance use disorder in addition to other co-occurring disorders.
As stated previously, veterans who experience injury during combat may be susceptible to alcohol, prescription drug, and illicit drug use as a way of self-medicating themselves, which paves the way for substance abuse and addiction.
Addiction Treatment for Veterans
Addiction treatment for veterans generally consists of a combination of detox, rehabilitation, and psychiatric care.
Considering that a higher percentage of military veterans also experience trauma and mental health issues, it is best to address these issues simultaneously with addiction treatment to ensure the best results and reduce the chance of relapse. As a result, it’s important to ensure treatment programs have the capacity to treat co-occurring disorders.
Detoxification is a necessary initial step in addiction treatment and represents an important first phase of recovery.
Depending on the severity of use and certain physiological factors, detox can generally take 3 to 7 days. Detox ultimately paves the way for rehabilitation but should never be considered a substitute. It doesn’t constitute treatment on its own.
In some cases, withdrawal from certain substances can be life-threatening, such as alcohol withdrawal or benzodiazepine withdrawal. Make sure to seek medical attention before suddenly stopping use of any substance.
Veteran community treatment is available but often presents barriers to a speedy rehabilitation process. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) requires enrollment in their treatment program rather than community referrals.
Rehabilitation programs generally offer programs that are 30, 60, or 90 days based on the individual’s needs and severity of the addiction. Often, 12-step group participation is required as a part of many rehabilitation programs.
You can also get information on VA addiction services here.
Psychiatric Care for Veterans
Veterans often have co-occurring disorders that lead to drug and alcohol misuse. PTSD, depression, and traumatic brain injury (TBI) rank highly among issues experienced by those who serve in the military. Individuals respond differently to combat, trauma, and treatment, so psychiatric care should be based on the individual’s needs.
VA insurance covers addiction treatment as well as co-occurring disorders. However, the individual seeking treatment needs to be enrolled in VA’s health care system.
In many cases, those who are dishonorably discharged may face challenges getting VA coverage. Depending on the circumstances, those who are discharged for undesirable conduct still may qualify for VA benefits.
How Long Should Veterans Receive Addiction Treatment?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for addiction treatment among veterans. Substance use disorders among veterans vary widely in severity. The substance the individual is addicted to will also influence the duration of rehabilitation.
Psychiatric treatment is often an ongoing and indefinite component of a veteran’s addiction treatment program. More intensive drug or alcohol rehabilitation can last anywhere from 30 to 90 days, but some degree of care may be needed for life, such as regular participation in therapy or support groups.
Veterans can often explore support groups for individuals who have had similar experiences and struggles in addition to 12-step groups that often meet on a daily or weekly basis. These sorts of supplemental treatment options provide ongoing support and significantly reduce a veteran’s chances of relapsing. Veterans have unique experiences and backgrounds, and hearing from others who understand can be crucial to ongoing recovery.
Veterans struggling with substance abuse and addiction are encouraged to find support as soon as possible and to engage in a multi-faceted program that encourages sustained recovery.
Management of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (September 2019). Medicine.
Substance Abuse. (September 2022). Virginia Department of Veterans Services.
Veteran and Military Mental Health Issues. (May 2022). StatPearls.
Substance Use Disorders in Military Veterans: Prevalence and Treatment Challenges. (August 2017). Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation.
Barriers to Community Treatment for Opioid Use Disorders Among Rural Veterans. (November 2021). Journal of Veterans Studies.
Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Employment for Veterans. (2022). American Psychological Association.
Substance Use Disorders Among Veterans in a Nationally Representative Sample: Prevalence and Associated Functioning and Treatment Utilization. (November 2018). Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
A Grounded Theory of Veterans’ Experiences of Addiction-as-Occupation. (2016). Journal of Occupational Science.
Addressing the Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Service Needs of Returning Veterans and Their Families: The Training Needs of State Alcohol and Other Drug Agencies and Providers. The National Association of State and Drug Abuse Directors and Abt Associates, Inc.
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