Why U.S. Military Veterans are Facing an Addiction Crisis

We owe so much to the veterans of our country, and this population is suffering from substance use disorders at more than double the rate of the civilian population. The more that you look at the underlying issues veterans face, the less surprising this statistic becomes.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Thirteen percent of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is typically the result of participating in stressful events, such as combat.

PTSD symptoms have long-ranging effects, and may include:

  • Irritability
  • Experiencing flashbacks
  • Anxiety
  • Avoiding reminders of bad memories

Some former soldiers cope with the symptoms of PTSD by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.

PTSD and Addiction go Hand-in-Hand

Approximately 27% of veterans participating in VA therapies who have PTSD, also have SUD. When a substance use disorder (SUD) and PTSD are experienced simultaneously, they are known as co-occurring disorders. Treating addiction that co-occurs with PTSD is more difficult than just treating the addiction.

Veterans will want to minimize the negative feelings that PTSD triggers by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. As a result, veterans with PTSD have a harder time overcoming their addiction. Therefore, treatments that include therapy designed to simultaneously address PTSD and addiction lead to more successful outcomes than just treating one or the other.  

Relief from Chronic Pain

The opioid epidemic that grips our nation is strongly associated with chronic pain, or “pain management.” A high instance of those who suffer from opioid use dependency (OUD) started out getting painkillers after an injury or surgery.

Many veterans have sustained injuries and may develop problems with addiction in their attempt to relieve chronic pain. Military culture has traditionally downplayed acknowledging pain (although that is changing). Research on veterans’ experiences in establishing coping mechanisms to manage chronic pain is lacking.

Managing Chronic Pain without Relying on Medications

There are programs to help veterans deal with chronic pain without relying on a chemical to provide relief. Coping chemically, ultimately, is a temporary solution with a lot of negative tradeoffs. This form of “treatment” can trigger problems like OUD.

Tips for Reducing Chronic Pain Symptoms

Below are some ways to cope and decrease veteran’s chronic pain that don’t involve the use of habit-forming medications:

  • Take a breather before the pain starts
  • Move your body regularly
  • Utilize exercises that strengthen and stretch the muscles
  • Get massage therapy
  • Use heat and cold therapy
  • Make healthy food choices
  • Limit the intake of coffee, nicotine, and alcohol
  • Participate in activities you love
  • Join a support group that includes other veterans with chronic pain
  • Use biofeedback to get in touch with your heart rate and how the body reacts to stresses
  • Take time out to relax during the day

This is only a partial list of methods that can help veterans cope with chronic pain ‘holistically’ (without addictive substances).

Prescribing Medicines for Addiction Problems

It may seem counter-intuitive, but there are some medications that can be used to assist with substance use disorders.  While these medications may even be habit-forming, the risk involved is less than that of drugs like alcohol or opiates, and studies have shown that recovery rates from addiction are at an all-time high thanks to these substances.

Medication-Assisted Treatment for Addiction. There has been a revolution in the availability and efficacy of medications that reduce withdrawals from substances like opiates and alcohol.  Prescribed medications such as Suboxone, Subutex, and Vivitrol will reduce the urge to abuse drugs or alcohol.

Non-Addictive Anxiety Medications. Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are often prescribed anxiety medications that are non-addictive, such as Paxil or Zoloft to their patients to minimize the risk of addiction to these medications.

Sedatives. Achieving peaceful sleep can go a long way towards establishing well-being in the life of a veteran. For this reason, “low-risk” sleep aids are often prescribed, such as Lunesta and Ambien.

Help is Available for Veterans

When pursuing addiction treatment, veterans have some advantages. Their local veteran’s administration (or V.A.) can provide traditional inpatient and outpatient treatment programs at little to no cost.  

The VA can also provide auxiliary services, such as individual, group, or family counseling to help with addiction (and PTSD). 

Recent advances in therapeutic interventions and the widespread training of mental health professionals have afforded veterans access to more and better therapies than ever before, including:

  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Prolonged exposure (PE)
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Contingency management have been found to be the most effective for SUD.

A treatment program may be designed for an individual with a unique combination of processes to meet their needs.

Get Started Now

If you are a veteran with severe PTSD or a substance abuse disorder (SUD), you need to receive treatment without delay.  There’s no reason to wait, these conditions are progressive and almost never go away on their own. To get started, contact your local VA health practitioner.

About the Author

Scott H. Silverman has been facilitating interventions and helping men and women recover from addiction for almost 40 years. He is the CEO of Confidential Recovery, an outpatient rehab in San Diego that specializes in helping veterans.