For years now, many veterans have had to deal with the effects of combat exposure. While many transition back into society, others struggle with PTSD and drug addiction.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs when someone goes through stressful or traumatic events. Examples of such events include accidents, violent or sexual assault, the death of a loved one, terrorist attacks, and war. Others include kidnappings, torture, and robberies.
Studies show at least 20% of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars developed PTSD. Unfortunately, half of them never went to a doctor. Moreover, those who did got inadequate treatment.
In the midst of this internal turmoil, some of them turn to illicit drugs or self-medication. They try to numb their pain as their lives unravel right before their eyes. They end up developing Substance Use Disorders (SUD).
Researchers believe there is a link between PTSD and SUD. Let’s find out the symptoms.
Symptoms of PTSD and Drug Abuse
Posttraumatic stress disorder and drug abuse co-occur often. It makes it more complex for doctors to deal with both. As such, this situation is responsible for the ever-improving psychosocial treatment approaches.
In the past, treatment focused on each problem separately. It is now clear people with PTSD are likely to have substance dependence problems. On its own, SUD is a formidable foe for anyone, military or civilian.
Drug addiction is now a global phenomenon wreaking havoc throughout the US. The most abused drugs are cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and opioid prescription drugs. Alcohol abuse is also widespread.
As if these substances aren’t bad enough, some abusers mix alcohol with the drugs. That’s a life-threatening decision. Unfortunately, substance abuse makes them not know or care about what they are doing.
Mix PTSD with SUD and you are dealing with a very big problem. This is what soldiers who were out there serving our country are now facing.
Here are some of the symptoms to look for:
- distressing memories or flashbacks of the triggering event
- anger, aggression, irritability, and restlessness
- difficulty sleeping due to fear, danger alertness, or nightmares
- detachment from loved ones
- avoiding talking about the traumatic events
- signs of depression such as hopelessness and lack of interest in activities
- memory, emotional, and attachment issues
- bloodshot eyes, deteriorating health, and poor hygiene
- financial problems
- risky behavior such as fast driving, criminal actions, and sharing dirty needles.
There are many other signs of trouble. The ones above are the common ones. Getting the veteran to a hospital as soon as possible is important. It could save their lives.
Some affected veterans experience very intense symptoms. They can’t go outside without reacting to normal day occurrences. Blown tires or even firework sounds can agitate them. They may start reliving their traumatic experiences. Don’t be surprised to see them duck for cover. It seems like their memories are blurring into the real world. In this state, they may become a danger not only to themselves but also to their loved ones.
Moreover, people with PTSD-SUD can start having suicidal thoughts. The current average of veteran deaths from suicide is 20 a day.
As such, you have to wonder, what are the reasons for PTSD and drug addiction? Read on to learn more.
Reasons for PTSD and Drug Addiction
There is some uncertainty about why Posttraumatic Stress Disorder develops. Medical researchers and doctors believe it could be a mix of different things. These include severity of the trauma, abnormal stress hormone levels, and genetic factors.
It could also be due to changes in the brain. For instance, how the brain regulates chemicals and hormones in the body. It could be due to a malfunctioning hippocampus, which regulates emotions and memories.
Last, it could be due to human’s primitive survival mechanisms. The body does everything to protect you from further pain or danger. It keeps you alert long enough to be ready for whatever you fear.
Other factors contributing to the PTSD can include substance abuse, mental health issues, and having a dangerous or stressful job.
With drug addiction, there are different reasons why it occurs. Some involve having addicted parents, succumbing to peer pressure, having mental health issues, and experiencing loss. Others become addicts due to work stress, financial difficulties, boredom, experimenting, and self-medicating.
Recently, the public became aware of the danger of getting addicted to painkillers. It starts innocently as you recover from a medical procedure. Then in no time, you find yourself unable to quit.
Addiction May Start with a Prescription
Some people are also victims of the health system. Due to the high cost of insurance, they are unable to pay for some of their medication. Thus, they look for unprescribed medication. Other times, they go for illegal drugs that provide alternative solutions. For example, some people use heroin in place of opioid painkillers.
It is common for veterans to find themselves in these situations. Many are unable to find work once they leave the war zone. Financial difficulties, reintegrating at home, and feelings of inadequacy due to unemployment play a role in substance abuse. It’s no wonder veterans alcohol abuse statistics are high.
Those who come from war with debilitating injuries may become addicted to painkillers. It is very unfair to these brave warriors. Yet, it is the reality of life. They come home from serving our country needing help, which they don’t get. Their addiction is not a choice, just as it isn’t for other addicts.
Addicted veterans must cope with the added pressure of PTSD. They need our compassion more than ever. The good news is that many veterans are receiving help and getting their lives back.
Treating Co-Occurring Disorders: PTSD and SUD
The U.S Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) calls for evidence-based treatment for co-occurring PTSD and SUD. Veterans with these co-occurring disorders have lives that are spiraling out of control. Such distractions complicate the treatment process.
VA doctors are trying different trauma-focused psychotherapies. They are also using comprehensive addiction treatment therapies. These methods include:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
It involves changing the negative thoughts that lead to substance abuse and addiction.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
Those who are abusing drugs also tend to have depression and suicidal thoughts. DBT involves using therapeutic exploration to find and break negative mindsets. It deals with how people with co-occurring disorders interact with their environment.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
It involves using rapid eye movement to treat addiction and Posttraumatic stress disorder. Under the guidance of the counselor, the patient recalls the traumatic experience. They desensitize the traumatic event and replace it with positive visualizations.
Eventually, the patient will know how to deal with negative emotions. The traumatic experience will no longer distress them.
Use of Medications
Some therapy involves using medication. Those suffering from PTSD can get antidepressants. Common examples of antidepressants include Zoloft, Prozac, and Paxil.
These medications work by targeting neurotransmitters linked with fear and anxiety. Possible side effects of these drugs include sweating, headaches, decreased libido, dizziness, and stomach upsets.
Due to the development and improvement of these therapies, it should be easy for the VA to help veterans. Unfortunately, struggling veterans have a tough time getting access to quality care.
Keep reading to see how they are dealing with this problem.
Improving Veterans Access to Quality Health Care
The U.S Department of Veterans Affairs continues working to improve the quality of care. Having improved access means being able to go to a facility and receive quality services.
Many veterans and citizens complain that the VA is not doing enough to help America’s heroes. This claim has backing from the U.S Government Accountability (GAO) Office. GAO designated the VA as a high-risk area in 2015.
Part of the problems with the VA includes:
- cost-intensive and inefficient use of resources
- long delays in serving and treating the veterans
- failure to ensure the quality and safety of care
- providing unreliable and inconsistent budget estimates for services
- poor coordination with other medical providers
- failure to follow VA policy
- inadequate oversight and accountability
- insufficient training and IT challenges for VA staff
As the largest health system in the U.S, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) should not allow such problems to exist. Returning soldiers are in need of support and care to get their lives running well again.
Here are some ideas for improving the system:
Sort Out Access to Care
When you are unwell, you want to get treatment immediately. It beggars belief that our country’s heroes wait 30 or more days for services. In cases of PTSD and substance abuse in veterans, treatment must start as soon as possible. Veterans Administration rehab centers should provide access before it’s too late.
The decision to allow advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) will also improve access. Several organizations like this idea. They include the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), and the Veterans Deserve Care Campaign.
Nurse practitioners can do clinical assessments, diagnose patients, and prescribe appropriate medication. Allowing them to assist the doctors reduces the wait times. Some veterans wait for days to get simple prescriptions and basic services.
The American Medical Association (AMA) opposes the VA’s decision. Yet, it’s clear allowing qualified NPs to help is better than delaying people’s treatment. These NPs can now work without physician supervision.
Another area to improve access is in the VA’s Telehealth program. Doctors use video teleconferencing to speak with patients. They can be able to diagnose Posttraumatic stress disorder and recommend treatment.
The VA has had several instances of mismanagement, corruption, deaths, and malpractice. Yet, some of those involved are never accountable for their actions. Fixing this major issue will change how the entire system works. It will become more efficient in delivering services to the retired soldiers.
Apply Reform Reports and Laws
It’s not enough for commissions, groups, and lawmakers to continue coming up with reforms for the VA. Someone must start applying the necessary changes.
New laws are allowing the Department to fire negligent employees. They also allow veterans to claim denied appeals. The system should apply all reform proposals given to them.
Invest in Research
Research investments will help the Department of Veterans Affairs to deal with emerging and current issues facing veterans. More research should go into finding better solutions for PTSD and substance abuse in the military. This will boost the evidence-based treatments already in place.
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Getting Veterans with PTSD-SUD into Treatment
As you can see, our country’s heroes face an uphill task when they come home from deployment. It is tough to reintegrate in society while dealing with the demons of mental health and substance use. To add to that, the group meant to help them keeps falling short of its mandate.
While things have not been easy, changes are coming through new laws and reforms. People are committed to ensuring veterans get quality care. However, we must find ways to get retired soldiers into treatment facilities.
Family members should give support, show understanding, and be patient with veterans. They should also recommend treatment and participation in 12-Step meetings. Though these are the first steps, they are key to future recovery and sobriety.