Substance Use In Veterens - Overcoming Addiction

Over 10% of veterans have a substance use disorder, and many others who have not been diagnosed also struggle with drugs or alcohol addictions. This is higher than the rate for the rest of the population, and for homeless veterans, the numbers are even higher at 70%. 

Keep reading to learn how substance abuse disorders affect veterans. And find out how to get help for yourself or a loved one suffering from drug or alcohol addiction after serving in the military. 

How Do Substance Use Disorders Affect Veterans?

Veterans face unique challenges. After leaving the structure of the military, adjusting to civilian life can be hard. Many veterans feel misunderstood by their families. Others have trouble getting used to living at home. Many have to look for work and potentially start new careers. All of that can be stressful. 

Veterans who have served in combat zones may struggle with issues such as PTSD which increases the risk of addiction. Similarly, pain due to injuries also heightens the risk of addiction. 

Sadly, veterans struggle with many issues linked to drug or alcohol addiction including:

  • Pain.
  • Trauma.
  • Depression.
  • Suicide Risk.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

In particular, veterans who saw intense violence or death are likely to develop PTSD, and many people turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain of PTSD. In fact, veterans who have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder have depression or PTSD at 3 to 4 times higher rates than the rest of the population. 

Some wars seem to lead to even more intense problems. Between 37 and 50% of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from mental health disorders. Mental health disorders do not lead to addiction. But often people drink or turn to drugs to deal with mental health problems, and there is a strong link between these issues. In fact, 1 in 4 people who have a serious mental illness also have a substance use disorder.

Among veterans of these most recent wars, the numbers are even higher. Nearly 63% of veterans with a substance use disorder also have PTSD. Sadly, veterans dealing with both of these issues are also more likely to have seizures, liver disease, and HIV. They also have schizophrenia, anxiety, and bipolar disorder at higher rates. These issues can lead to an increased risk of suicide. 

What Drugs Are Most Commonly Abused by Veterans?

The most common drugs for veterans include marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. But meth addiction is also on the rise, and tobacco presents serious issues for this community as well. 

In most cases, veterans use different drugs after they leave the military than when they are deployed. Often, veterans start smoking cigarettes when they are deployed. Deployment is also linked to excessive drinking. In some cases, active duty personnel misuse pain meds. Recently, both smoking and pain pill use has dropped. 

In most cases, active duty soldiers do not use illicit drugs. But once people leave the military, they are more likely to turn to harder drugs. On average, about 3.5% of veterans say they used marijuana in the last month, and 1.7% said they used other illicit drugs. 

When they enter a substance treatment center, nearly 10% of veterans say they want help with heroin addiction. Over 6% need help with cocaine addiction. Although people do not enter treatment for using tobacco products, veterans use tobacco at higher rates than the rest of the population. 

Nearly 30% of veterans smoke, chew, or use other tobacco products. Veterans are also more likely to be former smokers than the rest of the population. 

New research also shows a link between heart issues and meth addiction. Between 2005 and 2015, 5% of people who came to a VA hospital with heart failure were using meth. The number has been increasing every year. 

In 2005, only 1.7% of these patients were using meth. Ten years later, the rate was 8%. On average, meth users with heart failure were 11 years younger than the average patient at this hospital. The average veteran with heart failure was 72, but heart patients who used meth had an average age of 61. 

Pain also drives addiction among veterans. To understand the issue, look at these stats:

  • About 2/3 of veterans have pain. 
  • Among veterans, 9% have severe pain. In contrast, only 6.3% of the regular population has severe pain.
  • In 2001, 17% of veterans had an opioid prescription for pain.
  • By 2009, 24% of veterans had an opioid prescription. 

This increases the risk of accidental overdose from opioid pain pills. In recent years, the opioid overdose rate has increased among veterans, but most of the increase was due to heroin or synthetic opioids not from pain pills. 

Alcohol Addiction in Veterans

Alcohol addiction is the number one reason why veterans enter a substance treatment center. On intake paperwork, 65% of veterans say they need help with alcohol. This is double the rate of the rest of the population. 

Even veterans who do not seek alcohol addiction treatment drink at higher rates than the rest of the population. When asked if they drank in the last month, 56.6% of veterans said yes. In the civilian population, the rate is lower at 50.8%. 

Sadly, binge drinking is common in the veteran community — 7.5% of veterans compared to 6.5% of civilians admit to drinking heavily in the last month.

Drug and Alcohol Treatment Resources for Veterans

There is a lot of stigma around addiction in the military. As a result, many people do not ask for help. Many veterans also suffer silently with mental health issues, and again, that increases the risk of alcohol or drug addiction. Sadly, 50% of military personnel believe asking for help with mental health may negatively impact their careers.

In other situations, veterans may have limited access to treatment, or they may not have adequate insurance coverage. If you are struggling with drug addiction, alcohol addiction, or mental health issues, you need to reach out for help. At Spring Hill Recovery, there are programs that can help you. 

Check out these resources: 

  • Veterans Crisis and Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or text 838255
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: 1-844-698-2311
  • National Call Center for Homeless Veterans: 1-877-424-3838
  • VetChange: An online resource from the VA for veterans worried about their drinking. 
  • GetNaloxoneNow: An online service to help you access Naloxone and train you to deal with opioid overdoses. 
  • SmokeFreeVet: Resources for veterans who want to quit smoking. 
  • VA Programs for Homeless Veterans: Online information and links to help homeless veterans. 

How to Address A Substance Abuse Problem

If you have a drug or alcohol addiction, you need the right help to address your substance abuse. Ideally, you may want these types of services:

  • Medical detox. Quitting certain drugs including alcohol and heroin on your own can be dangerous. Detox provides medical supervision for your safety. 
  • Drug substitution therapies. This refers to taking certain drugs to reduce cravings. For example, your doctor may suggest methadone if you have a heroin addiction. 
  • Nicotine replacement therapy. Medication and products like nicotine gum can help with tobacco cravings. 
  • Outpatient treatment. You stay in your home, and you receive counseling or other services to get past your addiction. 
  • Intensive outpatient treatment. You receive intensive counseling and addiction support through a substance treatment center, but again, you get to stay in your home. 
  • Inpatient treatment. Inpatient treatment gives you a break from your life and its stresses. You live in a substance treatment center, and you really focus on your wellness with a supportive community of people. 
  • Marriage and family counseling. Dealing with the stress of the military can be hard on families. Family counseling can improve family dynamics and help with problem solving. 
  • Self-help groups. Meeting with other veterans who have similar struggles can help as you deal with addiction. These groups can also be essential as you maintain your sobriety. You may want to look for groups geared toward specific demographics such as female veterans, combat veterans, or homeless veterans. 
  • Relapse treatment. This treatment focuses on helping you stay sober. 

If you are worried about a veteran in your life, you should address their substance use disorder very carefully. When you reach out to them, be gentle. Try to understand their situation. Do not act judgmental or unkind. Instead, tell them you are concerned. 

When talking with a veteran about drinking or drug addiction, make sure you have plenty of time. If possible, approach them in a private location where you will not be interrupted. Let them ask questions and listen to what they say.

Remember, people turn to drugs and alcohol for complicated reasons, and this is especially true with veterans. You cannot force someone to stop using drugs or alcohol. They have to make the decision on their own. But you can encourage them to get help and give them information about resources. 

If you are a veteran dealing with drug or alcohol addiction, get help today. Worried about a loved one? You should also pick up the phone. Contact our treatment center today, and we can help you take the next steps to move forward past your addiction. 

Sources

  1. Get naloxone now. (n.d.).
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013, March 1). Substance use and military life.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Part 1: The connection between substance use disorders and mental illness.
  4. Smokefree veterans. (n.d.).
  5. Substance use treatment for veterans. (2019, June 14).
  6. Susan Scutti, CNN. (2017, November 14). Heart failure tied to rise of meth use in veterans.
  7. VetChange: For veterans concerned about their drinking. (n.d.)
  8. VHA Office of Mental Health. (n.d.). VA.gov | Veterans Affairs.