Veterans and Addiction

Veterans and Addiction: Why is there a Correlation?

A large number of veterans struggle with a variety of mental health conditions, including substance abuse, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), suicidal tendencies, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and depression. Just 50% of people who have served in the military and require medical care for these mental health conditions choose to seek help. In addition, less than half of those who eventually receive such services can access adequate care.

Normally, veterans have a lower rate of illicit drugs consumption than civilians. However, heavy alcohol consumption (especially episodic binge-drinking) is notably more common. Also highly prevalent amongst veterans is the misuse or abuse of behavioural or prescription pain medication -especially as a way to deal with trauma. In psychological terms, trauma is an event or situation that you might find difficult to cope with. It can leave you in a state of profound fear, making you feel excessively afraid of actual or imminent death, destruction, as well as physical or mental harm.

If you’ve suffered trauma first-hand, you might experience a range of negative emotions, from pain to confusion, betrayal, entrapment, helplessness or powerlessness, loss and terror. A sufficiently traumatic event can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD), which can manifest at any time and last a lifetime. There is a high risk of drug and/or alcohol abuse and addiction when you’re suffering from an advanced form of trauma. Veterans can turn to alcohol or other intoxicating or illicit drugs in an attempt to deal with the symptoms and negative emotions that occur with PTSD.

However, ‘self-medicating’ with such substances can eventually worsen your symptoms. The first thing to do when you’re struggling with a combination of PTSD and a substance use disorder is to seek professional treatment. A health professional that specialises in providing effective treatments for co-occurring conditions can help get the therapy you need. Your symptoms can therefore improve and you will enjoy more stability and balance in your life.

History of Drugs and War

Previously, drugs had been easily available in the German capital of Berlin during the Weimar Republic, although the Nazis banned them after seizing power in 1933. However, they patented Pervitin (a methamphetamine-based drug) in 1937 that could induce euphoria, help people stay awake and boost their performance. Hildebrand (a new kind of chocolate) was also produced, containing 13mg of Pervitin – a much higher dose than the regular 3mg pill.

Over 35 million doses of Pervitin (3mg) were shipped during the invasion of France in July 1940 from Berlin to the German army and Luftwaffe. The effects of the drug allowed the soldiers to stay awake for long periods, sometimes marching non-stop. The drug played a huge part in the victory of the Nazis in the battle for France. Hitler was unprepared to fight, their equipment was poor and the Wehrmacht had only three million soldiers to face the allies’ four million. However, the Germans could advance through challenging terrain, lasting 36 to 50 hours without sleep, because they were armed with Pervitin.

Cocaine chewing gums were created by pharmacist, Gerhard Orzechowski, when the Germans were losing, towards the end of the war. The gum was designed to allow pilots of one-man U-boats to remain awake for many long days. A great number of pilots experienced mental breakdowns as a result of taking the drug while being isolated in an enclosed space for extended periods of time. However, when the Berlin factory producing the drugs Pervitin and Eukodol were attacked by the allies in 1945, the Nazi’s (and Hitler’s) drug consumption also came to an end.  Notably, there were other people taking drugs besides the Nazis. For instance, Allied bomber pilots also took drugs to maintain alertness and focus during long flights; their drug of choice was Benzedrine.

There are records in the Laurier Military History Archives in Ontario, Canada, suggesting that every five to six hours, the soldiers should take 5mg to 20mg of Benzedrine sulphate. It is estimated that 72 million amphetamine tablets were ingested by the Allies during the Second World War. US marines allegedly depended on it for the invasion of Tarawa in 1943, while paratroopers used it during the D-Day landings.

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Addiction and Suicide amongst Veterans

Several studies point to the high rates of alcohol use, substance abuse and suicide amongst both active service members and veterans. Generally, veterans have an increased risk of suicide as a whole, especially those plagued by substance abuse disorders or addiction. The most widely practiced method of attempting suicide was through the use of illicit or prescription pills and/or alcohol. Many veterans live through traumatic experiences, and this is one of the main reasons they might turn to alcohol and/or drugs.

These experiences include feelings of anxiety, depression and traumatic memories, resulting from PTSD. If the disorder is inadequately treated or left undiagnosed, it can increase the chances of developing addiction or leading to suicide. At first, a casual drink or the occasional use of recreational drugs to cope with PTSD-related challenges may seem harmless, but when your other underlying issues are left unaddressed, it can rapidly lead to addiction.  A combination of addiction and PTSD (or any other existing mental health condition) increases the possibility of suicide.

When you’re a veteran with alcohol and substance use problems, you might be faced with an extra layer of isolation. Many veterans feel like they are unable to relate to other addicts and alcoholics who are non-veterans. However, it is essential to understand that addiction is indiscriminate, and that you have more in common with civilian addicts that you might be inclined to believe.

Veteran suicide and addiction go hand in hand. Two major indicators of suicide are drug and alcohol abuse, and this is what pervades in the veteran community. While the presence of a widespread mental health crisis is undeniable, mental healthcare providers in the V.A. and civilian hospitals are too quick to prescribe or administer anti-depressants, tranquilisers and other mood stabilisers. Many patients need them -and they all have legitimate uses – but when it comes to combating addiction and suicide amongst veterans, this might actually be making things worse.

Opioid Addiction in Veterans

Compared to the general population, there is a higher possibility for veterans to die from accidentally overdosing on opioids. As a result of a desire to live free of pain, veterans might turn to opioids (natural or man-made chemicals used to reduce pain) as a way to cope. There is currently a nationwide opioid epidemic – and it is growing daily, as veterans return home with injuries and look for relief. This means there is a big push for opioids to deal with a wide range of pain, including arthritis and other results of far-flung conflicts.

Opioid addiction occurs slowly and can take over your life without you realising it. Addiction to opioids can occur after you have had surgery or a serious injury. A physician prescribes opiate painkillers and you begin to take it until you develop tolerance, dependence and eventually become addicted. If you suffer from chronic pain, you could experience severe co-occurring post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury that can make pain management even more challenging.

The addiction can hit you especially hard, as you process painful experiences connected to your injuries. These experiences can hinder your ability to cope with physical discomfort, and the opioids help to make it easier. Having the drug in your system takes over everything, from decision-making to the way you feel. It calms and relaxes you, but you can potentially develop an opioid addiction from there on in.

To prevent opioid dependence and addiction from forming, it’s important to seek professional addiction treatment as early as possible. This can include getting help from psychologists, counsellors, therapists and other professionals to ensure comprehensive treatment.

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Alcoholism amongst Veterans

Veterans face a wide array of challenges, including being away from home, unpredictable deployments and the constant risk of injury. Unfortunately, alcohol is commonly used during these difficult times as a coping mechanism. This is why alcoholism amongst veterans has become a huge concern. Both active duty and retired military personnel can be severely affected by alcoholism. After an extended period of time, alcoholism can affect your health, personal life, professional goals and overall well-being.

Alcohol lowers your serotonin and norepinephrine levels when it enters your body. Serotonin is a chemical that regulates memory, sleep, appetite and mood. Norepinephrine is a stress hormone that affects how your body reacts to different events. Unusually, low levels of either chemical in the body can result in depression. If you suffer from mental health conditions, engaging in excessive drinking can make bad situations seem a lot worse than they actually are. This could result in suicide or other forms of self-harm.

Unfortunately, not enough veterans get the help they need. About half the male and female veterans who return home from service are in need of specialist care for mental health issues. However, only about 50% of those choose to seek help. You might even try to self-medicate or attempt to hide your alcoholism from your friends and loved ones. However, when PTSD or other underlying mental health conditions are present, the risks are higher. As a veteran, some of the possible risks related to alcohol abuse include depression and homelessness.

The safest and most effective way to overcome a drinking problem is to seek professional help. Professional alcohol counsellors can work with you on a one-on-one basis to discover any symptoms of PTSD. They can also educate you about some practical skills and techniques to avoid future triggers that could result in relapse.

How female veterans are affected by addiction

When it comes to issues regarding addiction, female veterans often have unique concerns that can add to their struggle with mental health and substance abuse. The abuse of prescription painkillers and medication between 2005 and 2008 increased at a rate that is twice that of the civilian population. According to studies, female veterans abuse their medication at a rate that is four times higher than the civilian population.

Accounting for all other factors (including the fact that women are genetically predisposed to have a higher response to fear than men), female veterans have a more serious problem. Women experience traumatic disorders such as PTSD to a greater extent, and have a suicide rate that is six times higher than that of civilian women. This is partially as a result of their more amplified fear response, and also because women deal with certain challenges that need to be taken into consideration.

Therefore, one in nine women has a positive PTSD diagnosis, with females twice as likely as males to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result, you may be more vulnerable to PTSD, resulting from combat situations and also from your experiences within your own ranks. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, 13% of women in military service have experienced unsolicited sexual contact or harassment, while 10% have been raped during service.

The majority of such cases are not addressed or prosecuted, which can result in women veterans resorting to alcohol abuse and other mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. You could also be dealing with unique challenges relating to child and family care during your deployment. These and other sources of stress can result in an addiction to alcohol and/or drugs. Unsurprisingly, female military veterans commit suicide at a higher rate than civilian women.

How male veterans are affected by addiction

Male veterans can consume alcohol to forget terrifying incidents or to mask the triggers of trauma. However, consistent and prolonged binge-drinking can alter your brain, build tolerance and increase alcohol dependence over time. Excessive alcohol consumption can also affect your PTSD. In addition to prolonging symptoms of PTSD, it can also intensify them as well.

The depressant characteristics of alcohol can cause drinking to cause severe anxiety, insomnia and depression. Whether a male veteran has experienced combat or not, transitioning to everyday life from deployment can be challenging. This can cause short and long-term mental health problems that can result in addiction.

When you return after service, you might find that your previously established family dynamics have changed; children are older and interested in new activities, your spouse may have taken on new roles in your absence and your loved ones are unable to relate to your most vivid experiences. If you are also recovering from the aftermath of an injury or suffering from PTSD, the added stress from new family dynamic can cause you to start self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.

For other male veterans, ‘regular life’ simply cannot replace or even replicate the heightened experience acquired whilst in service. Therefore, it can be stressful to settle into a job and family routines no matter how desirable. As a result, it can be easy to use alcohol to cope with the transition. If you’re trying to find a solid ground upon your return home, you can consider seeking help from the many available veteran support groups and treatment centres.

Co-Occurring Disorders in cases of Veteran addiction

Co-occurring conditions involve the appearance of two conditions: substance abuse and a mental health disorder. For veterans, there is always the risk of suffering a co-occurring disorder. For instance, if you are struggling with depression and fall victim to alcohol abuse, both conditions must be addressed and treated simultaneously. Left untreated, a co-occurring disorder can result in severe health complications in the future.

Co-occurring disorders can occur in a wide variety of combinations, with symptoms often mimicking each other. This means diagnosis and treatment of co-occurring disorders can be challenging. Depression may be indicated by slow responses, lack of interest in activities and lethargy. However, these symptoms also represent opioid addiction or an addiction to other forms of central nervous system depressants. In addition, the grandiose thinking and euphoria resulting from a bipolar disorder can be similar to the ‘high’ from cocaine.

In cases of veteran addiction, co-occurring disorders can be caused by different factors, including genetic or biological tendencies, in addition to environmental conditions such as trauma and abuse. Mental health and substance abuse disorders in veterans are more common than in civilians. Normal contributing factors aside, veterans experience unique issues during their time in the military that intensify their co-occurring disorders.

Although millions of veterans are suffering the effects of combined addiction and mental health issues whilst adjusting to civilian life, many are unable to access treatment. If you or someone you love is struggling with an alcohol or drug addiction (and mental health problems), there are several options available to aid recovery. Simply get in touch with an addiction specialist to start your journey towards wellness.

How Families Can Recognise Signs of Substance Abuse in Veterans

Substance abuse can affect all veterans, no matter your age, gender or military ranking. However, having a substance abuse disorder doesn’t make you a bad person. If you suspect a veteran in your family might be suffering from substance abuse, it’s crucial to help them get treatment immediately. Some signs to look out for include:

  • Withdrawal symptoms: When they are unable to take the drug, they begin to experience withdrawal symptoms at a rapid rate. These may be sudden flu-like symptoms, tremors and other unusual illnesses.
  • Physical symptoms and behavioural changes: If they’re abusing opioids or other depressant pills, they can become excessively sleepy or drowsy. However, you’ll notice hyperactivity or insomnia in someone abusing stimulant drugs.
  • Developing a physical tolerance for the drug: after a period of using the substance in question, the body and brain become accustomed to it. This means that they’ll be taking more and more of it to achieve similar effects.
  • Sudden problems with work or school: Substance abuse can cause sudden trouble keeping up with work or school responsibilities. They could begin to miss classes or go to work late.
  • Loss of interest in usual activities: Their focus might shift from the things and people that used to be important to them, to how to manage their substance abuse. They become more concerned with obtaining and using the drug, and trying to hide this from their loved ones.
  • Abandoning personal grooming: They may begin to neglected baths or showers as a result of substance abuse. You might notice skin and nail problems or broken, decayed teeth.
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If you notice any of these signs in a loved one, it’s important to get help, fast. Usually, veterans may be unwilling to seek help and family members may have to stage an intervention. Regardless, it’s best to take steps now to overcome substance abuse and prevent more severe problems arising at a later date.

Veteran Substance Abuse Statistics

  • In 2014, a JAMA Internal Medicine study assessed the prevalence of chronic pain and opioid use among 2,500 soldiers after deployment. 44% of them had chronic pain, and 15% regularly ingested opioids – rates much higher than the general population.
  • The drugs that are most abused are opioid medications; in 2008, 11% of military service personnel reported abusing prescription drugs, with a 2% increase in 2002 to 4% in 2005.
  • 27% of veterans deployed to Iraq had positive screening results for alcohol abuse.
  • In another study, 25% of recently deployed soldiers also had positive screening results for alcohol abuse, in addition to 12% for behavioural problems resulting from alcohol abuse.
  • One large-scale survey (carried out before massive deployments to areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan) concluded that the rate of binge-drinking in the military ranges between 15% and 20%.
  • Around 20% of active military personnel report binge drinking at least once a week. The members with combat exposure also report this type of substance abuse at a higher rate.
  • A large-scale survey was carried out on 88,205 soldiers (who had recently been deployed to Iraq) and discovered that roughly 12% to 15% had positive screening results for alcohol-related problems.
  • More than 20% of veterans living with PTSD also struggle from drug or alcohol dependence or addiction.
  • In 2008, a survey carried out on veterans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan discovered that 13.8% of them were diagnosed with PTSD.
  • 8 million prescriptions were written for painkillers by military doctors in 2009.
  • From 2003 to 2009, the amount of veterans seeking treatment for alcoholism increased by 56%.

Veteran Addiction Treatment

The men and women who provide their services in the military come face to face with highly stressful and traumatic events every day. With the number of veterans in need of treatment ever increasing, there needs to be more focus on making addiction recovery programmes available and affordable. This includes specialised treatment facilities that can effectively diagnose, treat and prevent addiction amongst service members.

Generally, treatment often includes detox, individual and group counselling, family counselling sessions, support group meetings and aftercare. The best veteran addiction treatment centres have highly skilled and experienced staff members, who can provide appropriate treatment. If you’re struggling with PTSD and substance abuse disorder, your treatment will typically include:

  • Individual therapy: to teach you how to identify your triggers, which can make you succumb to cravings and relapse.
  • Group sessions: to provide a platform for the common challenges faced by others with the same problem (of PTSD and substance addiction) that can be addressed communally.
  • Couples and family counselling: this treatment aims to teach family members about the significance of dual diagnosis. Focus is also placed on how familial relationships can be restored and strengthened.
  • 12-step meetings and veteran support groups: these meetings provide a safe place to draw inspiration and strength. These specially designed veteran substance abuse groups offer the kind of support that reflects your experiences in military service.

If you’re dealing with an addiction to alcohol and/or drugs, combined with PTSD from a past traumatic event, you can fully recover if you get the right veteran addiction treatment. This means entering an addiction treatment programme that can help you recover from co-occurring disorders. Your chances of recovery are significantly better when both disorders are addressed.

Veteran Addiction Rehabilitation

The treatment programmes in veteran addiction rehabilitation are designed to identify and treat co-occurring disorders and prevent harmful drinking patterns. They commonly include a combination of medication-assisted treatments, cognitive-behavioural treatments, individual and group therapy, and family counselling sessions. With the help of an experienced alcohol treatment specialist, you will be able to set achievable goals for your recovery.

Medication management is one of the treatment approaches in veteran rehab, which according to studies, shows promise in treating all combinations of substance abuse and mental health disorder. It is mainly used to manage withdrawal and to control symptoms of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. The use of medications in addiction rehab depends on your individual needs, but it can be an essential aspect of a complete treatment plan.

The recovery process is different for every veteran, and it should never be rushed. As your symptoms begin to improve, you will become better equipped to overcome triggers and impulses to engage in substance abuse.  It’s crucial to know that veteran addiction rehabilitation will not cure you of your substance dependence. It’s therefore recommended to continue counselling and participate in support groups such as Al-Anon and Narcotics Anonymous to ensure long-term abstinence. In addition, you can benefit significantly from having a solid support system in place to find encouragement during difficult times.

You might choose to avoid the VA when seeking treatment for addiction, because of the length of time it takes to receive medical care. Seeking treatment in a private rehabilitation facility can be helpful in those times when immediate treatment is needed for a serious case of addiction and/or PTSD. There are several qualified treatment centres where you can receive treatment for addiction and underlying PTSD. If you’re a veteran struggling with addiction, there is help available right now.

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Drug Rehab Guides for Addicted Veterans and their Families

Addiction is a ‘family disease’. As such, when a family member is addicted, the others feel the effects and respond through silence, anger, disappointment or fear. Families of veterans also have a lot to deal with, as they go long periods without seeing their loved one, not knowing if their spouse, parent, child or sibling will ever return. The ones that do return bear physical, mental and emotional scars – the horrors of war that return with them from the battlefield.

Even the tightest knit of families can be severely affected by the effects of war trauma. A drug rehab guide specially designed for veterans and their families can be beneficial in answering the many questions about treatment and therapy for drug or alcohol addiction.

This also means that you no longer have to wait for addiction to lead to family, legal or medical problems before seeking treatment. When enlisted soldiers return home, they might seem somewhat different. Depending on their experiences during their time away, it can be quite challenging for them to push painful memories of war aside and go back to normal life. Some veterans come back deeply affected psychologically by their personal experiences and those of others on the battlefront, and addiction may have developed.

Substance addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are usually easily identifiable. It can take a while before your loved one can comfortably re-enter society. In situations where family members feel helpless to change the addicted person – or if they are totally isolated and showing the main symptoms of substance addiction, PSTD or both – it may be time to initiate an intervention. This is a professionally organised process, in which family members lovingly, yet honestly, speak to the addicted person about how addiction has affected them as a unit.


What causes addiction in veterans?

Veterans can become dependent on pain medications prescribed to treat their injuries. There are several contributing causes to addiction in veterans, including: PTSD, sexual assault, traumatic brain injury, pain medication for injury, and the return to civilian life.

How does addiction affect those in the military?

Addiction goes beyond just drug abuse and dependence; it has different physical, mental and social consequences for those in the military. For instance, addiction can increase absenteeism, ‘on-the-job’ injuries and loss of productivity in the military. These behaviours can eventually lead to a termination of employment. Additionally, an addiction to alcohol and other substances can hamper brain function and prevent transition from the military to civilian workforce.

What are the signs of addiction and mental health disorders in veterans?

Addiction and mental health disorder in veterans can be identified through different signs, including: lack of control over substance use, cravings to use, social or interpersonal problems resulting from drug addiction, developing drug tolerance, neglecting responsibilities in favour of drug use, and continued drug abuse in spite of the negative consequences.

What kinds of treatment programmes are available?

Inpatient and outpatient treatment programmes are available. Also, Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous can be found in most communities. Issues specifically related to veterans can be addressed in programmes like the Veteran Treatment Courts (VTCs). This programme was created to ensure veterans are not punished for crimes committed as a direct result of addiction, PTSD and other mental conditions.

How can veterans overcome stigma and get help?

Since addiction is a progressive illness, failing to seek treatment can significantly affect the various aspects of a veteran’s life. It takes a lot of courage to admit that there is a problem, but it’s essential in order to overcome the fear of stigma and acknowledge the problem, so that you can find a solution.

What treatment approaches are used for veterans?

In cases where a veteran is struggling with addiction and a mental health disorder both conditions need to be treated to achieve complete recovery. Failing to treat one or the other is likely to result in a relapse when symptoms of the untreated condition return. Therapies and medications are efficient treatment approaches that can be used for veterans.

How can you stay sober after rehab?

Aftercare programmes can help you stay sober after rehab. The main goal of aftercare is to maintain and improve on your recovery. Most aftercare programmes offer therapy sessions and self-help groups such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). These two programmes are widely available in different communities nationwide, and you can attend for an extended period after rehab to maintain your sobriety.

What help is available for families?

There are several options available in rehab to help family members, such as:

  • Family therapy sessions
  • Family education about drugs of abuse, addiction, treatment and recovery
  • Patient education about how addiction affects the family
  • Family education about the relationship between the family and addiction
  • Participation in 12-step groups for families of people with substance use disorders, such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon

How common is PTSD amongst veterans?

Veterans returning from the war in Iraq suffer more PTSD symptoms than the general population, according to one study. Compared to 3.5% among the general population, about 11.8% experience PTSD symptoms not long after deployment and 16.7% show PTSD symptoms six months post-deployment.

Are veterans with PTSD more likely to have substance use disorders?

According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 27% of veterans diagnosed with PTSD also struggle with a substance use disorder. Before seeking treatment, some veterans may try to use drugs or alcohol to cope with their PTSD symptoms. PTSD has therefore been linked to a high risk of drug abuse, and the presence of both conditions requires dual diagnosis treatment.

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