Veterans And Substance Abuse: Scope, Risks, And Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on October 11, 2021

Veterans experience a disproportionate rate of mental health issues, suicide, and substance abuse. There are several risk factors that contribute to these issues, but fortunately, they are preventable and treatable with a number of resources and support for veterans.

Substance Abuse Resources For Veterans

Veterans give so much of themselves in service to the citizens of the United States, but unfortunately, many of them return home with substance use disorders.

This reality is due to several factors — witnessing horrific war scenes, the emotional distress of leaving loved ones, and difficulty reintegrating, to name a few.

Fortunately, there are ways we can become more aware of this issue as a nation and provide services for our veterans.

There are several treatment programs designed specifically for those who have served, or who are active-duty members.

The Scope Of Veteran Substance Abuse

Research published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found that about 11% of veterans meet the criteria for a substance use disorder (SUD).

Additionally, men face twice the rate of substance abuse than women veterans (10.5% current alcohol use disorders for men versus 4.8% current alcohol use disorders among women).

Resources For Veterans Overcoming Substance Abuse

If you’re a veteran dealing with substance abuse, or your loved one is going through addiction, there are several practical resources at your disposal.

These resources include government-provided programs, types of treatment programs ideal for veterans, and organizations that can provide education and skills.

VA Mental Health And Substance Abuse Resources

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides several resources for active-duty members and veterans.

Remember, whether you’ve seen combat or not, these services are set aside to benefit you no matter what involvement you had with your level of service.

Explore the following mental health and substance abuse options available at more than 1,200 VA health centers in the U.S.:

  • counseling: the VA provides therapy for individuals, families, and groups overcoming addiction.
  • addiction programs: find detox, outpatient, inpatient, residential, relapse prevention, substance abuse and PTSD-specific services, and other programs for substance abuse.
  • medication: the VA can help you to get medications to ease cravings, withdrawal, and prevent relapse for opioid, alcohol, and tobacco addictions.
  • opioid treatment programs: medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is available to veterans for the treatment of opioid use disorders.

Treatment Outside The VA

If there is not a VA treatment center close to you, or you need to seek treatment outside the VA, there are plenty of options for substance abuse recovery.

Many treatment centers have programs dedicated to treating veterans and meeting their unique needs, honoring their circumstances and recovery goals.

You can find each of the treatments listed above and more at a number of rehab facilities in your state.

Organizations To Support Veterans Recovering From Addiction

As you continue your search for the best plan of action moving forward, lean on the resources and organizations that aim to serve veterans.

These include:

The Most Commonly Abused Substances Among Veterans

Alcohol, prescription opioids, marijuana, and illicit drugs are a few of the most frequently reported substances of abuse.

Veteran Alcohol Abuse

The most prevalent SUD for veterans is alcohol use disorder. Despite efforts from leadership to curb alcohol consumption, deep-seated cultural norms are not easy to stop.

Researchers have found that alcohol is a large component of relaxation, socializing, and recreation for military personnel.

This cultural norm can quickly lead to dependency for many veterans who return home and must relearn old ways of life, find employment, build relationships, and face other barriers to reintegration.

Veteran Opioid Abuse

Veterans are also more likely to abuse prescription drugs (such as opioids) than the general population.

For those who have seen combat or been injured, pain management is a priority. From 2001 to 2009, the rate of prescription opioids prescribed to veterans increased from 17% to 24%.

However, the VA has since addressed this issue, decreasing the number of prescription opioids from 679,000 in 2012 to 247,000 in 2020.

Other commonly abused drugs among veterans include marijuana (3.5% of veterans) and illicit drugs (1.7% of veterans), such as heroin and cocaine.

Risk Factors For Substance Abuse Among Veterans

The numbers described above come from the physical and emotional stress that veterans experience when compared to the general U.S. population.

Risk factors for addiction among veterans can include mental illness, suicidal thoughts, physical and emotional abuse, and other problems.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

According to NCBI research, high levels of combat exposure are associated with alcohol abuse.

For example, military personnel with high exposure to combat see a rate of 26.8% for heavy drinking and a rate of 54.8% for binge drinking.

Military personnel who did not witness the same levels of combat had significantly lower rates of alcohol misuse (17% reported heavy drinking and 45% reported binge drinking).

Veterans with PTSD have much higher rates of SUDs: about half of military personnel seeking addiction treatment also meet the criteria for PTSD.

Suicidal Thoughts And Ideations

One of the most pertinent issues among veterans is suicidal behaviors. The VA published data surveying suicides among veterans from 2001 through 2019.

Fortunately, the suicide rate has been decreasing since 2017, beginning a downward trend that’s been steadily increasing since 2001.

However, veterans still see a suicide rate that’s 1.5 times greater than the general population. In 2019, 6,261 veterans died by suicide, which accounted for more than 13% of suicides among U.S. adults that year.

Experts are well aware of the direct link between suicide and substance abuse, shedding light on a larger issue of mental health.

Suicide is never a black and white issue: veteran suicides are often the result of a combination of financial stress, emotional burden, physical ailments, addictions, and a number of other issues.

Other Mental Health Disorders

Though about 28% of veterans have self-reported that they’ve had at least one mental health diagnosis in the past year, only half of those who need treatment will get it.

This may be due to the stigma associated with behavioral health care among veterans as well as an overwhelming lack of access to proper treatment facilities.

In addition to PTSD, veterans are commonly diagnosed with anxiety, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and depression.

A study looking at veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan revealed that there was an increase in depression and substance abuse for those who had witnessed combat.

High stress levels can lead to or exacerbate these issues, increasing the risk of substance abuse as veterans use drugs or alcohol to cope with mental issues.

Sexual, Verbal, Or Emotional Abuse

Research on intimate partner violence (IPV) has found that there is more abuse seen among military populations than the general U.S. population.

IPV can be defined as any behavior or action that causes psychological, physical, or sexual harm to those within the relationship.

In a 2011 study, 31.5% of female military personnel reported physical violence, and 47.1% had experienced psychological aggression. For men, the prevalence rates were 27.5% and 46.5%, respectively.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) reveals that substance abuse has been found to co-occur in 40% to 60% of IPV incidents.

IPV has been proven to be a major factor in precipitating and exacerbating issues with substance abuse among both partners in the relationship.

Additionally, studies have found that physical violence is 11 times more likely to occur among IPV perpetrators and victims when there was heavy substance abuse involved.

Unforeseen Difficulties With Reintegration

When returning home, veterans are met with several challenges that make for an uphill battle to reintegration.

These include:

  • homelessness
  • difficulty finding or sustaining employment
  • mental illness
  • substance abuse
  • troubles with relationships (i.e. with family members, spouses, children, or friends)
  • difficulties with upkeeping life skills and self-care (such as driving, getting enough sleep, etc.)

Running into any one of the above challenges can be a trigger for substance abuse.

Because stress is one of the primary motivating factors in addiction, these life stressors can increase the risk of abusing substances significantly.

How To Help Veterans Moving Forward

Change can only begin once we recognize the gaps in the system — veterans who don’t know their resources, believe they can’t get help, or struggle silently — and take active steps to address them.

Moving forward, it’s important that veterans are made fully aware of every resource available to them in regards to their mental health and issues with substance abuse.

Mental health treatment should be made an integral aspect of every veteran’s primary care plan, as each service member has a unique lived experience that needs to be cared for in some capacity.

Preventing substance abuse in the veteran community takes peer support, access to proper healthcare and treatment, screening for service members, and a focus on PTSD treatment.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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