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Veterans and Addiction: Why is There a Correlation?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are an estimated 23.4 million living U.S. veterans. A significant percentage of individuals who have served in the military suffer from a variety of mental health conditions, such as:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance Abuse
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
  • Depression
  • Suicidal Tendencies

Only about 50% of returning service members who require treatment for mental health conditions actually seek help. Even worse, a little over half of those who DO receive services get adequate care.

Military Life Is a Unique Culture unto Itself

Life as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces brings with it an extremely specific set of challenges and responsibilities not usually shared by the rest of the civilian population, such as:

  • Regular deployment/moving
  • Extended periods of separation from loved ones
  • Wartime service/combat experiences

The psychological distress caused by such factors is compounded by two unique-to-the-military mindsets. FIRST, many active-duty military members and veterans choose not to access the services for which they are eligible because they fear their careers may be damaged if it is revealed that they are receiving treatment for behavioral health issues. SECOND, upon returning to civilian life, it can be difficult for veterans to talk about traumatic wartime experiences, because they feel non-military mental health professionals have no frame of reference that would help them understand what the veteran has experienced. This is why so many have untreated disorders. It is also why so many veterans attempt to self-medicate.

Statistics Reveal Veterans’ Attempts to Cope

As a general rule, the use of illicit drugs among military personnel and veterans is lower than in the civilian population, but the heavy use of alcohol – especially episodic binge-drinking – is considerably more prevalent, and the misuse/abuse of prescription pain or behavioral medication is on the rise. According to information released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2013 as well as SAMSHA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA):

  • While approximately 12% of civilians self-report using an illicit drug within the past month, only 3% of active-duty military personnel do so.
  • Within the “most likely to use drugs” demographic of 18-25 years old, 2% of civilians used an illicit drug within the past 30 days, compared to 9% of service members.
  • Among screened Iraq/Afghanistan veterans, 39% exhibited signs for “probable alcohol abuse”, while 3% were positive for “probable drug use”.
  • Among active-duty soldiers, 43% self-reported binge-drinking within the past month.
  • Between 2006 and 2011, an Army study found that alcohol abuse associated with domestic violence rose by 54%.
  • Prescription medication misuse is on the rise – in 2002, just 2% of service members misused their medication. By 2005, that number was 5%, and by 2008, 11%.
  • Opioid painkillers are the most frequent prescription drug of abuse.
  • Between 2001-2009, the number of painkiller medication prescriptions written by military doctors quadrupled to nearly 4 MILLION.
  • Approximately 25% of veterans returning from duty in Afghanistan or Iraq exhibit symptoms of a cognitive or mental disorder.
  • Within that same group, 5% experienced a TBI during their deployment.
  • In 2012, the Army suicide rate reached an all-time high.
  • On any given night in 2009, 76,000 veterans were homeless.
  • Overall that year, approximately 136,000 veterans spent at least one night in a homeless shelter.
  • It is estimated that 70% of homeless veterans have a substance abuse disorder. Conversely, 21% of veterans with a substance abuse disorder are homeless.

The Reciprocal Relationship Between PTSD and Alcohol Abuse Among Veterans

Alcohol abuse and PTSD are frequently found together. People suffering from PTSD are more likely to have drinking problems, and vice versa. Binge drinking, especially, can often be an attempt to self-medicate in response to traumatic memories.

  • Up to 75% of individuals who have experienced violent or abusive trauma report problems with alcohol.
  • Up to 33% of survivors of traumatic disasters, accidents, or illnesses report drinking problems.
  • Alcohol abuse is more common among individuals who have chronic pain or continuing health problems due to past traumatic experience.
  • The VA reports that in 2011, 476,515 veterans with primary or secondary PTSD received treatment.
  • Among veterans in VA care who have been diagnosed with PTSD, 27% also have a substance abuse disorder.
  • Conversely, approximately one-third of veterans with a substance abuse disorder also suffer from PTSD.
  • Among Afghanistan/Iraq veterans, 1 in 5– 18.5% – suffer from PTSD.
  • Between 60% and 80% of Vietnam veterans have a problem with alcohol use.
  • Veterans age 65 or older who have PTSD are at an elevated risk for suicide if they also suffer from depression or have a problem with alcohol.

What to Do If You’re a Veteran with Co-Occurring Disorders

The first thing to do when you’re suffering from both a substance abuse disorder and PTSD is to talk to a health professional who specializes in treating co-occurring conditions. With proper therapy, the symptoms of both can improve, thereby restoring balance and stability to your life. Ashwood Recovery offers comprehensive outpatient addiction recovery services in the Boise, Idaho, area, and the experienced clinical staff specializes in the treatment of addictive issues with co-occurring disorders. Service plans are tailored to the individual and utilize evidence-based, wellness-focused strategies that maximize your chances of successful reintegration into a sober, healthy, and productive life.