Veterans Drug Abuse

Due to the trauma commonly experienced while being on duty, veterans are susceptible to drug abuse.

How Many Veterans Experience Addiction?

Veterans Drug Abuse

In the world we live in today, anyone is prone to becoming addicted to drugs, alcohol, or any other addictive substance. Everyone is faced with difficulties and tough decisions that are hard to cope with. For military veterans, it’s even more challenging to make those same decisions.

Veterans have mental and emotional trauma that makes dealing with life extremely difficult. As a result, many turn to substances to help them cope with those thoughts and emotions.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, roughly 1.5 million veterans suffer from some form of substance abuse. That equals out to one of every fifteen military veterans. Unfortunately, reports indicate that substance abuse rates and suicide rates increase each year.1

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A Further Look at Veterans

Definition of a Veteran

What Is a Veteran?

Title 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations defines a veteran as “a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable.” 2
Veterans can serve in any area of the military, including the Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force, Army Reserve, and many more. A person can hold any position in the army to be considered a veteran, from serving on the front lines to engineers to medical staff.
Note that while those dishonorably discharged aren’t technically veterans, they can still suffer from substance abuse.

Veteran and Mental Health Problems

A huge part of why veterans turn to substance abuse is that they develop mental health problems while on duty. Being under the constant stress of putting one’s life on the line can take a serious toll on a person’s body and mind.

Those who serve on the front lines (e.g., deployment, combat) commonly experience an increased chance of developing mental health problems; however, people who serve in the military, in general, face a higher risk than the public.3

One of the most troubling factors about veterans with mental health problems is that there isn’t a specific timeline to go by—some may exhibit symptoms during or immediately after their service, while others might not show any symptoms for several months or years. Suddenly, a traumatic event occurs in their post-military life, triggering emotions experienced while serving. This can lead to PTSD, depression, or other mental health illnesses.

Statistics on Veterans and Addiction

Substance abuse disorders are more common among men than women. According to the NIH, men are twice as likely to abuse substances than women.3

Research has shown that between 37% and 50% of veterans who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, and 63% who were diagnosed with SUD were dually diagnosed with PTSD.4

A study in 2017 found that 3.5% of veterans reported misuse of marijuana, 4% admitted to abusing prescription drugs, and nearly 2% admitted to using hard drugs such as opioids. Alcohol is the most widely abused substance among veterans, as 7.5% of veterans reported heavy use of alcohol. Additionally, 65% who entered a treatment program admitted to misusing alcohol the most, twice the amount of the public.4

Veterans Substance Abuse Stats

Why Do Veterans Experience Addiction?

The most common reason veterans experience addiction is the trauma they experienced while in the military. The odds of addiction and substance abuse go up with increased exposure to combat, but, as mentioned earlier, mental and substance use disorders occur more frequently among all people who serve in the military.

PTSD and Substance Abuse

PTSD is one of the most prevalent disorders in the military, with between 14% and 16% diagnosed. Furthermore, veterans diagnosed with SUD are three to four times more likely to have PTSD as a co-occurring disorder.5

What Is PTSD?

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder caused by a traumatic event that leads to persistent flashbacks and intense emotions related to that experience. This is common in veterans due to increased exposure to combat, violence, or near-death experiences. The most common side effects of PTSD are constantly on high alert, having trouble sleeping, or upsetting memories and dreams.6
PTSD first started to gain recognition as a serious problem in the 1980s with veterans of the Vietnam War; however, the exact reason that PTSD occurs isn’t fully known, despite years of research and studies. The fact remains that PTSD is a complex and ever-changing social, biological, and psychological problem. It manifests differently from person to person and affects them in different ways.

PTSD Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms are of PTSD are as numerous and complicated as PTSD itself. They can include but aren’t limited to the following:7
  • Feeling unusually upset by things that trigger traumatic memories.
  • Experiencing nightmares, dreams, or vivid memories of the traumatic experience to the point where it feels like they are reliving it.
  • Feeling emotionally stunted and removed from society.
  • Things once loved and cared about will suddenly seem mundane and unimportant. It’s not unusual to gradually gravitate to new and different things, but PTSD will cause fairly immediate changes in interest.
  • Feeling on guard or high alert all the time, even in the safety of friends or family.
  • Feeling sudden bouts of anger or rage come on for no particular reason. These feelings could also be triggered by tiny problems encountered in everyday life, such as getting pulled over by a cop or stubbing a toe.
  • Having difficulty sleeping, focusing, and doing things that remind the person of their traumatic experience. For example, if the experience involves an explosion or gunfire, hearing fireworks go off might be a trigger.

Other Disorders that Cause Addiction

While PTSD is one of the more severe mental disorders that lead to addiction, other disorders cause the same problems. Let’s review a few of them now.

Depression 

Depression causes sadness, a lack of interest in once exciting activities, social withdrawal, and depleted energy among veterans who suffer from it. Some of the symptoms are similar to PTSD, except that depression is constant and PTSD is often a triggered experience. Around 11% of military veterans have been diagnosed with depression, while one out of every three veterans will exhibit some form of depression throughout their lives.8

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is exactly what it sounds like—constant physical pain to a part or multiple parts of the body. Chronic pain is common in veterans due to the physical stress their bodies are put under in training and serving their country. Research shows that one in three veterans are diagnosed with chronic pain.9

To treat chronic pain, veterans have often been prescribed opioids. Opioids are effective at pain prevention but can often lead to addictions among veterans.

TBI 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as “a disruption in the normal function of the brain that can be caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head, or penetrating head injury.” TBIs are most common in veterans due to a combat or training injury. According to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, over 410,000 veterans have experienced a TBI of some sort.10

Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders are also extremely common among military veterans. Sleep disorders can occur independently or accompany TBIs, chronic pain, depression, or PTSD. Over 600,000 veterans have some form of sleep disorder.11

A Discussion on Drug Use in Veterans

Veteran: Kicking addiction took more than treatment

Substance Abuse in the Military

While substance abuse is a problem among active military members, it is more widespread among veterans. Veterans are much more likely to abuse substances than their active military counterparts. The military is a controlled environment with much more accountability and restrictions than civilian life. Thus, making it easier for veterans—who are out of the controlled environment—to have access to and neglect substances.

Prescription Drug Abuse in the Military

On the other hand, prescription drug abuse is a problem in the military amongst active-duty members and veterans alike. PTSD, depression, chronic pain, TBIs, and sleep disorders can all occur during active duty, and many of these disorders will be treated with prescription drugs. Opioids are the most commonly abused prescription drugs, but addiction isn’t limited.

Alcohol Abuse in the Military

In terms of outright numbers, alcohol abuse is the biggest problem in the military with active-duty members and veterans. Active military members have extremely high-stress jobs with little to no downtime. When they finally get a chance to wind down and cut loose, alcohol is often the substance of choice. This is because it’s usually the only substance available to them and it isn’t heavily monitored or regulated. Studies show that 30% of active military members reported binge drinking.4

What Substances Are Most Commonly Use by Veterans?

The substances most commonly used by veterans are as follows from most to least:
  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco, including smoking, vaping, and chewing
  • Prescription drugs, specifically opioids
  • Marijuana
  • Illegal drugs, specifically opioids
Veterans mental health stats

Veterans Treatment Options

There are many treatment options available to veterans who want it. Here are a few of them:

Dual Diagnosis

Dual diagnosis treatment is one of the newer and more innovative forms of treatment available to veterans. Because another disorder almost always accompanies substance abuse, a doctor will perform a dual diagnosis treatment to target both disorders simultaneously. Doctors who treat dual diagnoses strive to fix the problem of substance abuse and its underlying cause, usually a mental disorder

Detox

Detox is an effective part of treating the problem of substance abuse but should not stand alone as a single form of treatment. This is because detox rids the body of the substance to begin the process of recovery and the full treatment, which may consist of therapy, counseling, and medication. Nonetheless, detox has a lot of treatment options, including in-home, at a rehab facility, or in a hospital.

Inpatient Care

Inpatient care is when patients admit themselves to a rehab facility or clinic and live there while receiving treatment. Inpatient care is the most widely accepted and attempted treatment for drug or alcohol addiction.

Outpatient Care

Outpatient care for substance abuse is similar to inpatient care, but with one major difference—the patient is free to come and go as they please from whatever rehab facility they’re receiving treatment at.

Outpatient care offers more freedom to veterans who don’t want to feel trapped or confined; however, it also presents certain risks because they won’t be in a controlled environment where their access to drugs is restricted.

Therapies

Many of these facilities and treatments utilize several forms of therapy or treatment during a veteran’s recovery from substance abuse:
  • Physical or occupational therapy for veterans who have chronic pain in conjunction with substance abuse.
  • Sleep therapy to combat PTSD and other disorders causing sleep problems.
  • Detox is a standard part of recovering from drug or alcohol addiction.
  • Drug therapy is when medication is prescribed to reduce pain and tension when detoxing from more serious drugs.

Continuing Care

One of the biggest factors that affect whether a veteran can fully recover from substance abuse is continuing or aftercare. Relapse is extremely common among military veterans, especially if the underlying problem that led to addiction isn’t addressed. Continuing care comes in VA clinics, support groups, friends and family, or counseling. Veterans who are serious about making a lasting recovery from substance abuse should seek continuing care after detox and rehab.

VA Health Care Benefits

VA Benefits Overview | VA.gov

Does the VA Pay for Addiction Treatment?

While the VA offers insurance that covers most forms of addiction treatment, it varies from person to person and plan to plan. Veterans who are curious about how much of their addiction treatment their insurance will cover should check with the VA directly.

Tricare 

Tricare is a health care program of the United States Department of Defense Military Health System. They offer civilian health benefits for active-duty military members, veterans, dependents, and Reserve members.

Veterans Choice

The Veterans Choice Program is a recent addition to treatment options for military veterans. If there are delays in hearing back from the VA, the Veterans Choice Program enables people to get the same treatment and benefits from civilian doctors.

Community Care

Community Care is similar to Veterans Choice in that it offers veterans more medical options outside of VA hospitals.

MISSION Act

The MISSION Act is the most recent change made to acts that preceded it regarding medical options for veterans. It’s the most comprehensive act to date that helps veterans get the help they need outside of VA clinics and hospitals.

Frequently Asked Questions About VA Benefits

What Is the Difference Between Veterans Choice, Community Care, and MISSION Act?

The MISSION Act created the Community Care Program, which essentially did away with the Veterans Choice Program. The MISSION Act is more comprehensive than Veterans Choice and allows for more treatment options and clinics for veterans.

How Do Costs and Copays Work with VA Insurance?

Copays in the VA work the same way that copays do for civilians. Veterans may have to pay a certain amount to receive treatment. The cost for any medications they receive while in a VA clinic or approved hospital is covered by their inpatient care copay.

How Does Private Insurance Work with VA Insurance?

Veterans are allowed to seek forms of private health insurance that supplement the benefits they get from their VA insurance. In other words, veterans can use their VA benefits first and resort to private insurance where necessary or beneficial.

How Does Medicare Work with VA Insurance?

Having Medicare and VA insurance will give veterans the most treatment options. If a person must receive treatment outside of a VA clinic or VA-approved facility, Medicare might cover the costs.

How Does Medicaid Work with VA Insurance?

Medicaid can also be used as a supplement to VA insurance.
PTSD or Depression Stats