Veterans & Addiction: How Addiction Affects Veterans & Active Military
Active duty and military veterans face extreme sacrifices in their day-to-day lives. Military personnel and those transitioning from it can experience stress, excitement, traumatic incidents, and unpredictable deployments that civilians don’t face. For some, these experiences and stressors can cause PTSD and other issues that affect individuals for a lifetime, and even components of military culture have become a growing concern in regards to developing a substance use disorder.
According to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, there are approximately 23.5 million veterans in the United States and 2.3 million active military service members. More than two out of ten veterans suffering from PTSD also have a substance-use disorder. In addition, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about one in ten returning Veterans have a problem with alcohol and other drugs.
What Substance Abuse Looks Like In the Military & In Veterans
The effects of the military can last a lifetime. If you find that yourself or a loved one may be suffering from the effects of addiction, it’s important to spot the signs. It can be difficult to determine if you’re suffering from addiction, especially if you are questioning your own substance use. Symptoms can vary from person to person, however, there are a number of specific signs for military personnel and veterans that may determine if a substance use disorder is present. These can include:
- The inability to quit using substances despite attempts to quit
- Lack of motivation
- Increased anxiety and depression
- Increased alcohol or drug use to calm anxiety or symptoms of PTSD
- Frequent blackouts
- Poor on-the-job performance
- DUI or legal trouble
Drugs of Choice within The Military & Veteran Community
Alcohol is the most used drug among military personnel and veterans. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 30% of active-duty service members partake in binge drinking habits. More than 5% of those individuals were heavy drinkers and over one third of those met the criteria for alcohol-use disorder.
Prescription drug misuse has become more frequent in the military and veteran community because many are treated with opioids for injuries or benzos for symptoms of PTSD. Overtime, individuals become dependent on these drugs and a tolerance can develop, increasing risk for addiction. According to the VA, 50-60% of service members returning from deployment experience chronic pain.
Tobacco is another widely used substance in the Military and Veteran community. According to the Centers of Disease Control (CDC), tobacco use cost the Department of Defense nearly $1.8 billion in medical and non-medical costs. In 2010, the Veterans Health Administration spent $2.7 billion on smoking-related ambulatory care.
Addiction Risk Factors for Veteran Members & Active Military
There are a number of factors that can increase risk of substance use disorder in military and veteran personnel These can include the following:
PTSD & Co-Occurring Disorders
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a range of symptoms an individual experiences after witnessing traumatic incidents or being in dangerous situations. Those with multiple deployments and exposure to combat have a higher risk of developing PTSD and other co-occurring mental health disorders. Veterans and military personnel that have these mental health issues may turn to alcohol and/or drugs to help alleviate their symptoms.
Those serving in the military can turn to alcohol as a way to relieve stress, socialize with coworkers, or use it as a common way to pass time. For years, alcohol has also played a large role in military culture. Tied to masculinity, some service members feel like they need to keep up with alcohol use to find commonalities with their co-workers.
High Expectations & Stress
During a military career, individuals are often faced with high expectations to perform well in their position and experience stressful environments while in active duty. In response to this, individuals can resort to substances to cope. According to a report from the Department of Defense (DoD), 14 percent of its personnel self-reported current smoking.
Retiring or Getting Out of the Military
Any type of transition can be challenging and stressful. However, going back to normal life after serving in the military can be especially hard. In the military, people have structure, discipline, order, and a certain sense of duty and purpose. These things can be difficult to maintain for people after serving in the military when they return to civilian life. Not to mention all the everyday things veterans have to do, like make new friends, find a decent job, find a new place to live, and navigate all the services that used to be provided by the military. These stressors can cause veterans to turn to substances to cope.
Resources & Getting Help
There are numerous resources available for veterans and current active military personnel to receive help. For active military, substance use disorder can often go unnoticed due to the normalized nature of military culture. Individuals may find themselves hesitant to reach out for help in fear that it may affect their job. However, it’s important to understand that the effects of addiction are far worse when left untreated and trying to combat addiction alone is nearly impossible. No matter your military status, help is available.
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