Veterans And Substance Abuse

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Each year, thousands of American troops leave active duty and become military veterans. Unfortunately, many of these veterans suffer from problems related to their time in the services. As many know, the trauma of combat, unique military culture, stresses surrounding active duty, and other factors can lead to many veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Unfortunately, PTSD can lead to many other harmful problems and situations such as drug and alcohol addiction and suicide.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 20 percent of veterans with PTSD also deal with substance use disorder. Many veterans will turn to alcohol or drugs to relieve stress, PTSD symptoms, depression, or other mental health conditions.

Veterans and Substance Abuse

It is no surprise that following service, veterans can deal with a number of issues related to their health and well-being. For example, suicide rates among military personnel is 1.5 times higher than that of non-veteran adults and about 6,000 veterans die annually from suicide. Similarly, 30 percent of military personnel suicides are preceded by alcohol or drug use, and prescription drugs were involved in almost one third of these suicides.

Unfortunately, substance abuse among veterans does not seem to be slowing down, in fact it seems to be only increasing. According to a study published in the Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation journal, the percentage of veterans in the VA health care system who are receiving opioids increased by seven percent over an eight-year period. Also, the number of prescriptions written for pain medication by military physicians more than quadrupled during this time. More alarmingly, chronic use of opioid use increased from 3 to 4.5 percent , of these prescriptions a majority were oxycodone, hydrocodone, or codeine.

The statistics surrounding veteran substance abuse indicate the need for an intervention for veterans following discharge that will help them deal with the psychological and physical barriers and issues that they may face.

If you are worried that your loved one may be dealing with some type of substance abuse, look for a few specific and easy-to-spot signs. Symptoms of substance use disorder include:

  • Increased tolerance
  • Inability to stop drinking or using drugs despite negative consequences
  • Feeling sick when drinking or drug use stops

It should also be noted that those with multiple deployments, exposure to combat, and related injuries are at a greater risk of developing substance abuse problems. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, they are more likely to engage in heavy weekly drinking, binge drinking, suffer alcohol- or drug-related problems, and start smoking or relapse to smoking.

While there is a strong link between veterans and drug and alcohol use, many current-serving military members also use some substances. While there is a zero tolerance policy among military personnel, prescription drugs are still allowed given the correct circumstances. And, in the six-year period between 2002 and 2008, prescription misuse rose by over 400 percent, a  majority of these misused prescriptions were opioid pain medications.

Treatment Options For Veterans

The VA and drug and alcohol treatment centers can offer patients access to a number of therapeutic services that can help them conquer addiction, and hopefully come to terms and deal with any underlying factors that may be influencing their substance abuse issues.


Evidence-based psychotherapy or “talk therapy” is an effective way to treat substance abuse disorders in veterans and civilians alike. Luckily, Veterans Affairs medical centers offers one or more talk therapy an medications for the treatment of substance use disorder. Similarly, VA medical centers will provide clinical services for substance abuse in addition to evidence-based treatment.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a common evidence-based therapy that many treatment centers will provide to patients who are dealing with substance abuse problems. Essentially, during these CBT sessions, veterans will learn how to reduce substance abuse and improve their quality of life, usually in weekly meetings with a therapist. These sessions will help veterans manage the urge to drink or use drugs. They will learn strategies to refuse alcohol and drug use and learn for a problem-solving approach to dealing with substance abuse.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Many treatment centers will elect to go the Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) route when it comes to recovery. Many studies have found just how effective MAT can be. There are a number of options when it comes to MAT. One popular option is Vivitrol. Vivitrol is a non-addictive opioid antagonist that is taken once a month. Vivitrol works by blocking opioid receptors in the brain, negating the psychoactive effects associated with opioids. Vivitrol is also available for alcohol use.

These are just a few of the specific treatment options available, other types of therapies and treatment include motivational interviewing, motivational enhancement therapy, and contingency management.

About the Author

Matthew Boyle is the Chief Operating Officer of Landmark Recovery, a chain of drug and alcohol rehab facilities.. He has been working in the healthcare space for 7 years with a new emphasis on recovery. Before his ventures into healthcare, Matthew graduated from Duke University in 2011 Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree. After Duke Matthew went on to work for the Boston Consulting Group before he realized his true passion lies within Recovery. His vision is to save a million lives in 100 years with a unique approach to recovery that creates a supportive environment through trust, treatment, and intervention.

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