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  • More than one in ten military veterans have been diagnosed with substance use disorder (drug addiction). This disease starts with substance abuse, which occurs when you drink too much alcohol, use illicit drugs, or use prescription drugs in a manner not prescribed. 

    Veterans face a number of unique challenges that make them more prone to substance abuse and addiction. 

    Why Are Veterans Prone To Substance Abuse & Addiction?

    According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), veterans have a higher risk of addiction than the general population. They may misuse and become addicted to various substances. 

    Alcohol Misuse

    The most commonly misused substance among veterans is alcohol. 

    Research shows that veterans are much more likely than non-veterans to binge drink, which means they consume a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time. This behavior often leads to alcohol use disorder (also called alcohol addiction).

    Indeed, about 65% of veterans who enter a substance abuse treatment program list alcohol as their most frequently misused substance. 

    That’s almost twice the rate of the general population. Other drugs often misused by veterans include marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and prescription opioids.

    Multiple Issues

    Studies suggest that the increased risk of addiction among veterans stems from multiple issues that disproportionately affect the veteran population. These issues include trauma, mental health issues, chronic pain, and difficulty readjusting to civilian life.

    Trauma & Mental Health Issues

    Many veterans experience traumatic events. For example, in a war zone, they may witness severe injuries and deaths. They might also get seriously injured themselves, lose fellow military service members, or experience sexual assault. 

    These events can take a serious toll on a person’s mental health, causing symptoms such as:

    • anxiety and panic
    • irritability
    • trouble sleeping
    • nightmares
    • flashbacks, which make you feel like you are experiencing the event again
    • avoidance of people, places, or other things that remind you of the event
    • difficulty concentrating
    • loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
    • feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or hopelessness

    If these symptoms last longer than a month, or if they disrupt a person’s daily life, they may signal post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

    PTSD & Self-Medication

    According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), about 7% of veterans will be diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lives. When left untreated, this mental health condition can have serious complications, including suicide attempts. 

    Some veterans with PTSD try to self-medicate their symptoms by misusing drugs. 

    This behavior typically leads to addiction. According to the VA, more than two in ten veterans with PTSD also have addiction. Similarly, about 63% of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans with addiction also have PTSD.

    Other Mental Health Disorders

    In addition, veterans may suffer from other mental health disorders besides PTSD, including anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. As with PTSD, some veterans self-medicate these mental illnesses with alcohol or other drugs, leading to addiction.

    Chronic Pain

    Many military personnel develop chronic pain, often as a result of combat-related injuries. Studies show that over 9% of veterans live with severe pain, compared to 6.4% of the general population. 

    To cope, some veterans use prescription opioids. 

    Prescription Opioids

    Opioids are powerful pain relievers that pose a high risk of abuse. Opioid abuse occurs when you use an opioid in a manner not prescribed. For example, you might:

    • use it without a prescription
    • use it more frequently than prescribed
    • use higher doses than prescribed

    All of these behaviors typically result in addiction.

    Difficulty Readjusting To Civilian Life

    Military members tend to have trouble transitioning from military life to civilian life. For instance, they may feel consumed by thoughts of life in a war zone. As a result, they might struggle to relate to family members and friends who lack military experience.

    They may also find it difficult to reenter the civilian workforce, especially if they have never held a civilian job. To cope with these stressors, some veterans turn to drug use.

    Addiction Treatment Options For Veterans

    No matter the cause, veterans who live with substance abuse and addiction face a high risk of issues like damaged relationships, job loss, and homelessness. 

    According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), veterans make up a large portion of the American homeless population, and about 70% of homeless veterans also have addiction. 

    Fortunately, addiction is treatable. Like anyone with this disease, veterans need personalized treatment plans. Most treatment plans include services such as:

    • medical detox, in which healthcare providers help you safely stop using drugs with minimal withdrawal symptoms
    • cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in which a mental health professional helps you change unhelpful beliefs and behaviors that contribute to your drug or alcohol use
    • support groups, in which you can discuss your experiences with other people recovering from addiction
    • medication-assisted treatment (MAT), in which doctors prescribe medications to ease cravings and withdrawal symptoms associated with opioid or alcohol addiction
    • aftercare planning, in which your treatment team helps you plan strategies to reduce your risk of relapse, such as ongoing therapy, regular exercise, and assistance with education, employment, or housing

    Many veterans also benefit from dual diagnosis treatment. This type of care addresses addiction as well as co-occurring disorders, such as PTSD and depression. 

    To learn more about addiction treatment options, please contact an Ark Behavioral Health specialist. Our inpatient and outpatient treatment centers offer comprehensive, evidence-based care to help you or your loved one thrive.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2024 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.
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