Veterans and Substance Use Disorders

Published On: January 4, 2023|Categories: Substance Use Disorder|
Army Soldier walking against sunset

Substance use is a major public health problem regardless of military status and can have devastating or even fatal effects on the lives of affected individuals and their families. Misusing substances such as alcohol, prescription medications and illicit drugs can have negative consequences for not only an individual’s physical and mental health but also their work performance, housing status, social lives and daily functioning. 

In the United States, about nine percent of adults over age 18 struggle with substance use disorders, with about 1-in-4 developing one over the course of a lifetime. Because of the unique issues, they face during and after military service, veterans are at an even higher risk of developing substance use disorders compared to civilians.

Veterans and substance abuse

A number of factors can make veterans more susceptible to developing substance use disorders than the overall population. Substance use disorders often co-occur with other mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), moral injury, depression and anxiety. 

Veterans who have experienced trauma, such as military sexual trauma or combat might turn to substances to cope with painful memories and emotions related to the traumatic event(s). 

In general, veterans tend to be impacted by factors that correlate with substance use, such as pain, suicidal tendencies, trauma/PTSD and homelessness. Stressors unique to military personnel, such as deployment and reintegrating into civilian life, can also play a part in the development of substance use disorders. For instance, readjusting to living at home with family after a period of deployment while navigating changes or challenges in relationship dynamics due to the time apart can be extremely stressful. 

For combat veterans, coping with the effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI) may also lead to addiction.

While serving in the military, stigma, zero-tolerance policies for substance use and the threat of dishonorable discharge may deter individuals from seeking the help they need, so substance abuse may worsen after leaving active duty. 

Prevalence of substance abuse in veterans

Statistics show that substance use disorders are slightly more prevalent among veterans compared to the overall population, with more than one in ten veterans receiving a diagnosis. This disparity is greatest in male veterans aged 18 through 25 years.

Veterans with substance use disorders are 3-to-4 times more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD as well. Additionally, veterans with a dual diagnosis of both PTSD and substance use disorders are more likely to have other co-occurring conditions like seizures, liver disease, HIV, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and bipolar disorder. 

Alcohol and veterans

Alcohol use disorders are common in veterans, who are more likely to drink heavily than non-veterans. Exposure to violence, combat and traumatic events increases the risk of alcohol abuse. 

Among veterans who enter treatment programs for substance use disorders, 65% report alcohol as their most frequently misused substance, almost double the rate of the general population.

Opioids and veterans

Frequently, opioid use disorders among veterans begin with a prescription for pain medication following an injury during deployment. Two-thirds of veterans report experiencing pain. The addictive nature of opioids combined with underlying mental health issues in some veterans can easily lead to a substance use disorder. 

Additionally, veterans are more likely to report severe pain than non-veterans, which may put them at a higher risk of accidentally overdosing on their prescription pain medication as they try to find relief.

Veterans and illicit/illegal substance use

Aside from alcohol and prescription drugs, some veterans struggle with illicit or illegal drug use. Most commonly, veterans report using marijuana. Government research found that approximately 10% of veteran admissions to addiction treatment centers were for heroin and 6% were for cocaine use.

Substance use disorders treatment for veterans

If you or a loved one is a veteran in need of professional help for substance misuse, please know that you’re not alone and that there’s no need to feel ashamed. From detox to residential treatment to medication-assisted treatment, there are options at various levels of care for veterans struggling with substance use. 

At Pyramid Military Therapy & Recovery Programs, our non-judgmental, caring and compassionate staff welcomes veterans with substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders with open arms. We’re here to help you find your path toward recovery and a healthier, happier life.

Elderly veteran wearing World War Two cap thinking about what’s next while approaching the end of life.Veterans and Depression