No matter where you served or what rank you reached, readjusting to civilian life can be difficult. Even if they’re supportive, your family members don’t understand what it’s like to spend months in an unfamiliar place, hundreds or thousands of miles away from your support system. If you were involved in active combat, you may not feel comfortable sharing your experiences with loved ones. The more you bottle things up inside, the more likely it is that you’ll develop a mental health disorder or start using drugs or alcohol to cope with service-related trauma.
Substance Abuse in Veterans
Substance abuse is a common problem for veterans and active-duty military personnel. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1.3 million veterans had a substance use disorder in 2019. The same report indicates that 3.1% of veterans had at least one mental illness.
Veterans were more likely to report alcohol abuse than illicit drug use, with 80.8% reporting that they struggle with alcohol use and 26.9% reporting that they use illicit drugs. When examining the data for each age group, SAMHSA researchers determined that alcohol addiction is more common in younger veterans than older veterans. While 9.9% of veterans between the ages of 18 and 25 struggled with alcohol use disorder in 2019, only 5% of veterans aged 26 and older had an alcohol addiction during the same year.
In terms of illicit substances, marijuana is the most common, with 12.8% of veterans reporting that they’d used marijuana in the past year. Some states have legalized cannabis use, but marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, so it’s included with SAMHSA statistics on illicit drug use in veterans. Survey respondents also reported using cocaine, hallucinogens, methamphetamine, inhalants and heroin.
Factors Involved in Veteran Drug and Alcohol Addiction
Many factors are involved in drug and alcohol addiction among veterans. For many veterans, alcohol and drugs help numb the pain caused by witnessing the deaths of fellow service members or civilians living in combat zones. Veterans also face some unique challenges as they make the transition from active duty to civilian life. For example, some veterans have physical injuries or mental health disorders that make it difficult for them to maintain regular employment, increasing the risk for homelessness.
In 2019, there were more than 37,000 homeless veterans in the United States. Homelessness is defined as the lack of a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” Homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, physical ailments and mental health disorders may all interfere with a veteran’s ability to pay for housing and access health care.
Mental Health Concerns for Veterans
Veterans face many challenges during and after their military service, increasing the risk of substance abuse and other mental health disorders. One of the major contributors to mental illness among veterans is that moving frequently or being stationed overseas for months at a time can put a significant amount of strain on even the strongest relationships.
Some veterans return home only to find that their spouses want to file for divorce or their significant others want to end their relationships. Without a strong support system, it can be difficult to cope with service-related trauma and make a successful transition into civilian employment.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD affects many veterans, but the prevalence varies based on when someone served in the military. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 30% of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD at some point in their lives, while 12% of Gulf War veterans have PTSD in any given year. The statistics are similar for veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, with anywhere from 11% to 20% of veterans from these eras struggling with PTSD annually.
PTSD develops in people who’ve experienced traumatic situations, which tend to be shocking or scary. Veterans are exposed to many high-stress situations, such as witnessing the deaths of fellow service members and having to make split-second decisions that could put themselves at risk. As a result, they have a heightened risk of developing this disorder.
To qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD, a veteran must have at least one avoidance symptom, one reexperiencing symptom, two cognition and mood symptoms and two arousal and reactivity symptoms. Veterans exhibit avoidance symptoms when they change their routines to avoid thinking about the traumatic event. For example, someone who experienced a traumatic event at a certain building may drive miles out of their way to avoid seeing where the event occurred.
Reexperiencing symptoms are triggered by sights, sounds and smells associated with the traumatic event. Veterans injured in IED explosions may exhibit reexperiencing symptoms when they hear fireworks going off, for example. Flashbacks, frightening thoughts and nightmares are all examples of reexperiencing symptoms.
Cognition and mood symptoms affect the veteran’s mood and mental function. These symptoms are triggered by the event, not by substance abuse or the presence of other mental health conditions. A veteran with PTSD may have difficulty remembering specific details about the traumatic event or lose interest in everyday activities.
Finally, arousal symptoms make a person with PTSD feel angry or depressed. Emotional outbursts and difficulty sleeping are two of the most common arousal symptoms of PTSD.
Increased Risk of Suicide
Veterans also have an increased risk of suicide due to their experiences in the service. The Department of Veterans Affairs produces an annual suicide prevention report to raise awareness of the problem and explain what the agency is doing to help veterans. According to the 2021 report, more than 6,000 veterans completed suicide in 2019, accounting for 13.7% of all adult suicides in the United States. Suicide was most prevalent among veterans between the ages of 55 and 74.
One of the main reasons veterans complete suicide is because they’re experiencing “intense emotional stress” and can’t think of any other way to escape it. Suicide rates are higher among veterans who are separated or divorced, highlighting the importance of making sure veterans have a strong support system when they return from active duty.
Traumatic Brain Injury
A traumatic brain injury usually occurs when someone sustains a significant blow to the head. For service members on active duty, this type of blow can occur in several ways. For example, someone riding in a vehicle that drives over an IED may sustain a blow to the head during the blast, causing a concussion or some other type of brain injury. Engaging in hand-to-hand combat can also result in a blow to the head, as can falling during a rescue mission.
Depending on which area of the brain is injured, a traumatic brain injury can affect behavior, physical functioning and/or mental functioning. While some TBIs are mild, others cause serious symptoms, including the following:
- Altered taste or smell
- Speech or hearing problems
- Memory problems
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sudden mood changes
SAMHSA defines a co-occurring disorder as the coexistence of a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder. Although depression and PTSD are some of the most common co-occurring disorders in veterans, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia and conduct disorders can also accompany substance use disorder.
For veterans with co-occurring disorders, it’s especially important to treat substance abuse and other mental health diagnoses at the same time. Many veterans struggle with substance abuse because they use alcohol and drugs to cope with their service-related trauma. Addressing one condition without addressing the other makes it more difficult to achieve lasting recovery.
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Physical Problems in Veterans
Veterans also report higher rates of chronic pain than nonveterans, according to a study published by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. While 9.1% of veterans reported living with severe pain, only 6.4% of nonveterans reported having chronic pain that could be classified as severe. Chronic pain in veterans is associated with back injuries, joint problems, neck pain and migraines, among other conditions. Some veterans turn to substance abuse because they have severe pain that doesn’t respond to medication or other treatments.
Depending on where and how they served, some veterans are also at an increased risk of infectious illnesses. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan or the first Gulf War may have been exposed to shigella, Campylobacter jejuni and West Nile viruses, among other infectious organisms.
Chemical exposure is also a major concern, especially for veterans who served in Vietnam. Exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide, has been linked to bladder cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, hypothyroidism and multiple skin conditions. Many of these problems cause chronic pain, increasing the risk for substance abuse and other mental health disorders.
Start an Oregon Recovery Program for Veterans
If substance abuse is interfering with your relationships and putting your physical health and mental well-being at risk, you don’t have to struggle alone. Virtue at the Pointe offers a comprehensive addiction treatment program for veterans struggling with drug addiction, alcohol addiction and mental health disorders.
Virtue at the Pointe offers residential rehabilitation in a comfortable environment, ensuring you have all the resources you need to address your substance use and focus on lasting recovery. When you’re ready to begin substance abuse treatment, we’ll conduct a thorough assessment to determine what services you need to start recovering from your addiction.
Although every treatment plan is completely customized, you’ll most likely attend individual therapy sessions to identify your substance abuse triggers and find out how to cope with challenges without drinking or using drugs. Our therapists offer cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy and other types of individual therapy to ensure you have the tools you need to avoid relapse when you finish treatment.
We also offer group therapy, giving you the opportunity to gain insight from other patients working to overcome addiction. If you have trouble setting boundaries or communicating effectively with your loved ones, your therapist may even recommend that you participate in family therapy. These treatment options can help you avoid relapse when you return to your community.
When you leave the treatment facility, it’s important to have ongoing support from treatment professionals who provide trauma-informed care. Once you finish residential treatment, you’ll have the opportunity to work with a case manager and receive referrals for outpatient therapy and other types of treatment.
Paying for Mental Health Services
Virtue at the Pointe works with several major insurance companies, including TriWest Healthcare Alliance, that provide coverage for veterans. Under the Affordable Care Act, all health insurance companies must provide coverage for addiction treatment, giving you access to more treatment options than ever before. Coverage limits vary based on the plan and the insurer, but we have admissions counselors available to verify your benefits and determine exactly how much you can expect your insurance company to cover.
If your insurance doesn’t cover your entire stay, there are several options for paying your balance, including personal loans and credit cards. Because addiction treatment is an investment in your well-being, you may also be able to borrow money from friends and family members who want to see you succeed.
Resources for Veterans
Begin Your Recovery Today
Virtue at the Pointe specializes in helping veterans and active-duty military personnel recover from substance use disorders, PTSD and other mental health disorders. If you’ve been struggling with addiction or need help processing your service-related trauma, our veteran drug and alcohol rehab in Oregon is here to help you heal. Call (866) 377-4409 to discuss your needs with one of our admissions counselors.