According to Psychiatric Times, military members who return home from combat demonstrate high rates of substance abuse. Often, drug abuse co-occurs with other conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and pain related to injuries.
Research surveys demonstrate the unfortunate frequency of alcohol abuse among military personnel. Findings from different surveys regarding alcohol abuse among military personnel include the following:
- From 1980 through 2005, rates of heavy drinking in the military ranged from 15 to 20 percent.
- Upon return from Iraq, of 6,527 US Army soldiers screened, 27 percent indicated the presence of alcohol abuse.
- Of 1,120 soldiers who were recently deployed, 25 percent indicated alcohol misuse and 12 percent showed alcohol-related behavioral problems.
- Being exposed to atrocities of war and life-threatening combat situations were significantly associated with abusing alcohol.
It is important to note that there is little research into non-alcohol-related drug abuse among military personnel because such use is against military policy and could result in termination from employment. However, admissions to the Veterans Affairs medical centers for substance abuse shed some light on abuse of drugs other than alcohol. For instance, the following shows the number of admissions in 2010 for treatment for abuse of the substance indicated:
Opioid abuse (includes prescription painkillers like OxyContin): 43,332
When a person has a substance abuse disorder in combination with other mental health conditions, they are said to have co-occurring disorders, or a dual diagnosis. According to a study of the military population who suffered head injuries, compared to those who had not suffered such injuries, discharge rates for alcohol or other drug abuse were 2.6 times greater where mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) was present, and 5.4 times greater for moderate TBI.
In addition, in veterans receiving substance abuse treatment, there were high rates of pain, mostly related to conditions of the musculoskeletal system. While substance abuse disorder does not always co-occur with injuries, it does appear that where there have been injuries (to the brain or rest of the body), the injury may be a contributing factor to drug abuse.
Signs of Substance Abuse in Veterans
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (the “VA”) provides veterans with drug treatment and other medical services at designated hospitals and clinics. Whether a veteran has developed a substance abuse disorder as a coping mechanism for pain associated with military service, or for any other reason, specialized help is available.
As the VA discusses, signs of substance abuse disorder include:
- Physical tolerance. When the individual requires more of a drug to experience the familiar effects of earlier use.
- Compulsive actions. Mental addiction involves making the finding and using the abused drug(s) a priority in one’s life despite knowing the unhealthy consequences.
- Withdrawal. As a result of physical dependence, the body becomes habituated to the presence of a drug, such that when it is absent, the substance abuser will experience drug cravings and other withdrawal symptoms.
- Emotional factors. Substance abuse may arise from emotional pain or discomfort related to depression, stress, PTSD or other conditions.
A veteran who is displaying signs of substance abuse disorder, or who is concerned about drug abuse, is always best advised to consult with a qualified professional available through the VA or otherwise. However, to help educate veterans, the VA provides confidential and anonymous screening tools for mental health conditions, including alcohol and other drug abuse, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Treatment for Veterans
The VA offers scientifically based drug treatment services for all phases of drug abuse, from early substance abuse to acute states of addiction. Treatment traditionally (across different programs, not limited to the VA) may include the use of medications to assist detox and maintenance therapy, and non-medication-based support, such as individual and group counseling. The VA may approve the use of medication-assisted treatment in some instances, such as methadone for chronic opioid addiction (available in special, approved programs).
Where there is a dual diagnosis, such as PTSD, the veteran will receive compatible treatment for both conditions. In an effort to help veterans to find treatment programs, the VA has developed a searchable tool, the Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Program Locator.
To learn about eligibility for drug treatment programs, and for more information on the terms of veteran health insurance coverage, it is best to contact the VA by:
- Calling your local VA Medical Center and speaking with the OEF/OIF Coordinator
- Speaking with your VA health care provider
- Finding your local Vet Center
- Calling the free VA hotline at 1-800-827-1000
Oftentimes, veterans may want more comprehensive and timely care than what is available via the VA. In these instances, we’re happy to help. Our expert clinical staff members and addiction specialists are experienced in working with veterans who suffer from substance abuse or dual diagnoses issues. We are here to help you start your recovery – call now.
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.