Guide To Veterans and Addiction

Legacy Healing Center Blog

Veterans are among the hardest hit group of people who suffer from addiction. Drug and alcohol use has continued to rise over the last 20 years among our veterans. Trauma during deployment, injuries sustained from combat, and the pain of being away from loved ones all fiercely affect our heroic veterans at devastating rates. Drugs and alcohol provide solace to many of our military personnel, but when substance abuse becomes the main coping mechanism for veterans, addiction can place them in a stronghold.
If you are a veteran or have a loved one who is suffering from addiction, treatment will help teach healthy coping mechanisms to deal with the pain and struggles that veterans face every day.

Substance Abuse Among Veterans

Veterans who have been deployed multiple times, participated in combat, or sustained injuries are at a greater risk of developing a substance use disorder. The most frequently abused substances among veterans are alcohol and prescription opiates. Among veterans returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, approximately 39% suffer from an alcohol use disorder and 3% met the criteria for substance use disorder. There are many reasons why veterans are so susceptible to addiction, such as:

  • High comorbidity of co-occurring disorders such as PTSD, depression, and addiction
  • Exposure to combat or other traumatic events
  • Acquiring injuries that lead to chronic pain
  • Lack of healthy coping mechanisms and stress management skills
  • High reluctance to seek help due to zero tolerance policies or embarrassment
  • Having denial that he or she has a problem
  • Fear of dealing with painful emotions that linger after returning from deployment

Perhaps the most common disorder that causes veterans to turn to drugs or alcohol is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD and Substance Abuse

PTSD is a psychological disorder that can develop if an individual has experienced, witnessed, or been involved in a highly stressful or dangerous event. While there is no cure for PTSD, it can be treated through counseling and therapy. Approximately 19% of veterans who returned from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD.
The correlation between PTSD and addiction is undeniably strong, as more than one-third of veterans who suffers from a substance use disorder also meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. In addition, 20% of veterans who suffer from PTSD also have a substance use disorder. Without proper treatment and a healthy way to cope, the symptoms of PTSD can be terrifying.
Many turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the troublesome symptoms of PTSD:

  • Vivid flashbacks
  • A diminished sense of self-worth
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Hypervigilance
  • Unprecedented aggression
  • Hopelessness and depression
  • Difficulty sleeping, insomnia, and nightmares
  • Self-harm or risky behavior
  • Panic attacks
  • Isolating behavior
  • Avoiding talking about vulnerable subjects
  • Mood swings

Symptoms of PTSD may occur as soon as hours after the traumatic event, but some do not display symptoms for a few years after their experience at war.

Trauma Therapy

For veterans suffering from PTSD and addiction, trauma therapy has proven highly successful in managing the symptoms of PTSD. Trauma occurs when a person’s ability to cope is diminished by the severity of the event they have experienced. The purpose of trauma therapy is to help people work through the trauma they have faced and develop coping techniques that they can use to walk through future stressful circumstances.
By participating in trauma therapy, veterans will learn to focus more on the present than the past while becoming more aware of the things that may trigger their PTSD. Individuals who learn how to identify and cope with their triggers are more equipped to stay sober in the long term. The goal of trauma therapy in addiction treatment among veterans is to improve their daily functioning and help prevent a relapse.

Dual Diagnosis

In addiction treatment, treating one disorder and not the other is a dangerous practice. Since the comorbidity of mental health disorders and addiction is so high among veterans, it is imperative to incorporate dual diagnosis therapy into their treatment program.
Besides PTSD, veterans may also suffer from depression and anxiety due to their experiences overseas. Anxiety and depression can negatively affect the way individuals cope with and perceive the events occurring in their everyday life.
If only a veteran’s addiction is treated, leaving their mental health in a vulnerable state, the chance of relapse increases greatly. In order to better prepare individuals for sobriety, dual diagnosis clients should have a mental health evaluation and be treated with the proper counseling and medication to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life. For veterans who suffer from co-occurring mental health conditions and addiction, dual diagnosis therapy can help treat both conditions simultaneously.

Unique Struggles Veterans Face

There is an overwhelming stigma that continues to surround addiction, and veterans are no exception. Due to the nature of the military, there are unique struggles that veterans may face which may make them afraid to ask for the help they need.
Some misconceptions and stigmas that surround substance abuse among veterans include:

  • Veterans are well disciplined and strong-willed, so they won’t suffer from addiction.
  • Alcohol is an acceptable coping mechanism for the demons that haunt veterans with PTSD.
  • People who have served in our military deserve to be able to drink harder than the average person.
  • For active duty members, there are strict zero-tolerance policies preventing the military from engaging in substance abuse.

Here at Legacy Healing Center, we believe in shattering these stigmas and accepting veterans for who they are. Addiction does not discriminate, and there are other ways to cope with a veteran’s experiences without the use of drugs or alcohol.

Healing from Addiction

Despite the hopeless nature of addiction, recovery is possible. Our compassionate team here at Legacy Healing Center is ready and able to help you or your loved one begin their journey to recovery today. Veterans will learn relaxation techniques like meditation as well as the importance of developing a loving support group to help them heal from addiction and past trauma. A specialized treatment plan aimed towards helping veterans recover consists of integrated treatment modalities including:

  • Individual therapy
  • Family counseling
  • PTSD specific therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Medications to manage symptoms of co-occurring disorders
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)

Following treatment, veterans will be equipped with the coping mechanisms and relapse prevention tools needed to stay sober. Our addiction specialists will help develop an individualized aftercare plan that best meets the needs of you or your loved one.
National Institute on Drug Abuse Substance Abuse in the Military
U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans