The stress of deployment coupled with the military’s unique culture poses many risks related to substance use. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, more than one in 10 veterans have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder (SUD). These numbers are greater than the general population in the United States who has an SUD. Additionally, the veteran population is affected by many other critical issues related to substance use, including pain, suicide risk and trauma.
Some studies suggest that because of the zero-tolerance drug policy within the military, lack of confidentiality and mandatory random drug testing that could prevent substance use, it could also add to the stigma and discourage many who need treatment from getting it. Let’s take a closer look at substance use among veterans, why it is so prevalent and how to help address this issue.
Opioid and Prescription Drugs
While there is a zero-tolerance policy to prevent servicemen and women from using substances, opioid use disorder often begins with a pain prescription following an injury. Such use can lead to an addiction. Many veterans have various issues related to pain management, with many reporting to be experiencing pain, which places them at risk for accidental opioid pain reliever overdoses. Additionally, rates of opioid use continue to climb among veterans. Veterans’ overall opioid overdose rates increased to 21%in 2017 from 14%in 2010. However, this increase in overdose rates was more often from heroin and synthetic opioids and not from prescription pain relief opioids.
Alcohol plays a significant role in military culture across all branches of the military. Additionally, alcohol use disorders are the most prevalent form of substance use disorders among military personnel and veterans to self-medicate for symptoms of stress, anxiety and PTSD. A 2017 study found that compared to their non-veteran counterparts, veterans were more likely to use alcohol (NCBI). Furthermore, 65% of veterans who enter treatment programs report alcohol as the substance they most frequently use. In comparison, this is almost double that of the general U.S. population. Because alcohol is a depressant, it could also exacerbate symptoms of PTSD or other related mental health issues.
Contributing Factors to Substance Use
All veterans experience a period of readjustment after leaving the military. Therefore, learning how to acclimate back into a lifestyle with family, friends and communities can be difficult. In addition to post-deployment civilian/reintegration challenges, other environmental stressors to veterans further increase the risk of SUDs, including deployment and combat exposure. The demands of the profession and lack of resources for emotional management often result in unique mental health issues. The factors that contribute to veterans having a higher risk of substance use include:
- Exposure to trauma. Veterans with a history of multiple deployments and combat exposure are at high risk of developing PTSD and other mental health-related issues. Therefore, veterans often use substances to help them manage symptoms like intrusive thoughts, nightmares or insomnia. However, medicating with substances only perpetuates the symptoms of PTSD.
- Availability of prescription medications. Because some veterans can struggle with pain caused by active duty, they are more likely to be prescribed pain relievers. Therefore, they are at risk of becoming dependent on these highly addictive drugs.
- Barriers to treatment. Veterans who struggle with substance use disorders may be reluctant to seek help, despite the availability of resources and treatment programs. Often, veterans become deterred by perceived stigmas associated with seeking treatment.
- Treatment challenges. While many services and interventions are available to treat SUDs among veterans through VA Medical Centers, access to these centers can be challenging for veterans who live in rural areas. Therefore, veterans living in more rural areas might not be as motivated or informed about their options.
How to Help
It is essential when addressing the needs of veterans to look at some of the challenges they face trying to get care. There are many obstacles a veteran faces to prevent them from getting treatment including:
- Access to care
- Gaps in insurance coverage
- Lack of knowledge as to what is available
Therefore, efforts to provide remedies, including the use of evidence-based prevention and treatment interventions and expanding access to care, are critical to ensuring a veteran has the resources for proper care. Additionally, seeking treatment from a center that provides veteran-specific programs to address their unique mental health issues, prevent substance use and eradicate stigma are also crucial to giving veterans proper care. Such treatment should involve a combination of individual therapy, family counseling and medication-assisted treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy also helps veterans manage and cope with PTSD in healthier ways by allowing them to form better-thinking habits and to set realistic goals toward overcoming their SUDs.
At New Hope Ranch in Manor, Texas, just outside of Austin, we provide veteran-specific treatment programs to address the unique challenges of those who served in the military. Such treatments include providing a combination of individual therapy, group sessions and life-skills building. Our facilities provide safe and comfortable spaces to ensure that those who seek care are able to focus on their recovery. = Learn more by calling us at (737) 600-8565.