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Veterans Drug Rehab Guide

Veterans who are returning to civilian life may struggle with substance abuse, mental illness, and physical injuries related to their military service. However, with medical treatment, both substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders can be overcome. While no two veterans are the same in terms of how they handle substance abuse, there are commonalities that can be addressed by veterans drug rehab guides. 

Addiction and Substance Abuse Among Veterans

Addiction and substance abuse among veterans is notably higher than the general population. It is estimated that 1 in 10 veterans has a substance abuse disorder.1 Addiction and substance abuse among veterans is often worsened by co-occurring mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Oftentimes, veterans with mental health disorders are reluctant to seek help, primarily due to the stigma associated with mental illness. This stigma is seen in civilian life, and in the military. Rather, a veteran might turn to drugs and alcohol to cope and self-medicate.2  

Veteran Alcohol Abuse

Military and veteran alcohol abuse is common. In fact, binge drinking is more common among military personnel than in civilians. Exposure to combat appears to be a contributing factor for alcohol abuse as well. After leaving active duty and entering civilian life, veterans are more likely than non-active civilians to report heavy alcohol use. 1 Among those veterans seeking treatment at a Department of Veteran’s Affairs substance abuse program, 65% of them reported alcohol as their most abused substance, a rate that is approximately double that of the overall population seeking substance abuse treatment.1

Veteran Drug Abuse

Veteran drug abuse is also a significant problem amongst former military personnel. Service members often suffer injuries while on tour with the military. Over 9% of veterans report issues with pain, as compared to roughly 6% of the general population.1 For this reason, they might be prescribed an opioid painkiller to help ease the pain. While the numbers of opioid prescriptions quadrupled between 2001 and 2009, the military has cut back significantly on such prescriptions in recent years. However, given how addictive opioids are, and the fact that many military service members have mental health issues, many of them become addicted to drugs.1

Veteran drug abuse isn’t confined to a single substance. Marijuana is cited as the most abused drug among veterans. The VA reported that, from 2002 to 2009, marijuana use among veterans increased by 50%. For veterans being admitted to a VA drug rehab center, around 10% reported heroin use and 6% reported cocaine use.1 For female veterans, the numbers are slightly different, with 50% of female vets in VA drug rehab being treated for alcohol abuse, and another one-fifth being treated for cocaine abuse, followed by opiates and marijuana.3

Reasons for Veterans Substance Abuse

A variety of factors can contribute to a veteran developing a substance abuse disorder.  Some of the reasons for veterans substance abuse include:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Relationship issues.
  • Sleep deprivation.
  • Combat stress.

Other factors, such as relationship stress among veterans, can also contribute to the development of a substance abuse disorder. Family issues, specifically divorce, is associated with an increased risk of substance abuse in veterans.4 Furthermore, combat-related stress can be a factor in developing a substance abuse disorder. Other studies have indicated that both male and female veterans who experience high levels of guilt, shame, and other stressors associated with war have higher levels of alcohol abuse as well as other mental health disorders.

Veterans and Mental Health Issues

For many veterans, harsh conditions and exposure to combat can increase a soldier’s risk of developing mental illness. PTSD is perhaps the most well-known mental health disorder that affects veterans. Since the nature of combat can often lead to traumatic events and injuries, PTSD is common amongst military personnel and veterans.

One other area that has been linked to mental illness, including PTSD, is military sexual trauma. An estimated 1 in 4 military servicewomen, and 1 in 100 military servicemen, have experienced sexual trauma. Female veterans who have experienced sexual trauma are 9 times more likely to develop PTSD than military veterans who do not experience sexual trauma.5 Another common mental health issue veterans face is depression, with an estimated 1 in 3 veterans experiencing symptoms of depression, and 1 in 5 meeting the criteria for having a severe issue with depression.6 Depression can worsen for veterans if they have difficult adapting to civilian life, or become isolated from their friends, family, and peers. 

Traumatic Brain Injury & Veterans

Substance abuse, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and veterans also tend to go together. Notably, between 19-22% of veterans who fought in Iraq and/or Afghanistan suffered a TBI, labeling it the “signature wound.”5 Sometimes referred to as a concussion, a TBI can occur from any trauma to the skull, usually from a fall or being hit in the head by debris. Symptoms might be mild and leave no lasting effects, such as memory loss or loss of consciousness. However, for some, the injury results in long-term issues, such as:7

  • Headaches.
  • Ringing in the ears.
  • Feeling confused.
  • Anger issues.
  • Feeling lightheaded.
  • Impaired ability to solve problems or make decisions.

PTSD & Veterans

One of the most common mental health issues veterans face is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD occurs after a person goes through a traumatic event, such as combat, being physically assaulted, or surviving a natural disaster. PTSD occurs in 11-20% of combat veterans of several recent military engagements, and at a rate as high as 30% in veterans of the Vietnam War. Signs and symptoms of PTSD in veterans may include: 8

  • Experience reliving the event.
  • Avoid situations that remind them of the event.
  • Experience tension, anxiety, and be unable to remain calm or sleep.
  • Have nightmares.
  • Isolate and avoid people.
  • Feel the world is unsafe and threatening.

If these types of symptoms continue for at least 4 weeks, it is possible that the veteran has PTSD. This condition can lead to a substance abuse disorder, as veterans with PTSD may turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. It is estimated that:9

  • Around 20% of veterans with PTSD also have a substance abuse disorder.
  • 1 in 3 veterans seeking substance abuse treatment has a mental health disorder.
  • About 75% of Vietnam Veterans had co-occurring substance abuse and PTSD.
  • Female veterans with PTSD were about 2.5 times more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for abuse alcohol or dependence and about 4.5 times more likely to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of drug abuse or dependence compared with women without PTSD.
  • From 2003 to 2013, the number of veterans in VA drug rehab programs with both a substance abuse and PTSD diagnoses tripled.

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

Veterans drug treatment centers are an integral part of services that are offered to veterans by the VA. The Department of Veterans Affairs, or the VA for short, offers a multitude of programs for veterans and their families for substance abuse. These programs include drug rehab, mental health services, and family support programs. The VA offers information regarding the availability of these services, where to access these services, and the details of what each program can offer veterans and their families. Not all VA facilities offer substance abuse treatment or treatment for mental health disorder. However, the VA’s Community Care Partners program connects veterans with treatment facilities that provide services not offered by the VA.

Substance Abuse Help for Veterans

If you are a veteran in need of treatment for addiction, know that you are not alone. There are several organizations offering substance abuse help for veterans on a national and local level. Your local VA is a great place to start your search for substance abuse treatment. Among the programs offered are inpatient rehab, outpatient services, and a wide range of services to treat mental health and substance abuse disorders. The VA can connect you or your loved one to an appropriate treatment program, whether it be individual treatment, group treatment, dual diagnosis treatment, and/or medication-assisted treatment for certain addiction issues, including opioid addiction. The VA can also provide treatment for other issues, including depression, PTSD, and relationship counseling. In addition, the VA can provide pain management and other interventions for physical health issues.10

Desert Hope: Salute to Recovery

While the VA offers a variety of drug rehab programs, you might not be able to receive immediate treatment. Perhaps you don’t live near a VA treatment center. Or maybe your local VA does not have the type of treatment program you need. If this is the case, there are other community resources available to help you with your fight against addiction. The VA has partnered with private providers that can offer inpatient drug rehab programs and other services to you.

The Salute to Recovery program at Desert Hope, a treatment program in Las Vegas, Nevada, is one of the programs that has partnered with the VA to provide co-occurring treatment for veterans who need help with mental health and substance abuse disorders. One of the best things about Salute to Recovery is that many of the staff members are veterans themselves, and they have first-hand knowledge of what it is like to be a military service member and the struggles of adjusting to civilian life. This unique focus on veterans in Salute to Recovery gives you the opportunity to receive treatment in an atmosphere of empathy and understanding to aid you on your journey to recovery.

Sources

1. US Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). General risk of substance use disorders.

2. Harris, K. M., & Edlund, M. J. (2005). Self-medication of mental health problems: new evidence from a national survey. Health Services Research40(1), 117–134.

3. US Department of Veterans Affairs. (2018). Women veterans health care.

4. Schmied, E. A., Larson, G. E., Highfill-McRoy, R. M., & Thomsen, C. J. (2016). Reciprocal relationships between stressors and mental health problems in military veteransJournal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 35(9), 705-721.

5. American Psychological Association. The mental health needs of veterans, service members, and their families.

6. US Department of Veterans Affairs. (2016). VA research on depression.

7. US Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). Traumatic brain injury.

8. US Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). PTSD basics.

9. US Department of Veteran Affairs. (2018). Understanding the link between PTSD and substance use disorders in Veterans.

10. US Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). Treatment programs for substance use problems.