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Addiction Treatment and Rehab for Veterans

Substance misuse and addiction among United States veterans is a growing concern. There are currently over 1.3 million active-duty service members, and about 250,000 service members transition to civilian life each year.1

Many veterans and active-duty service members are facing physical and emotional challenges that put them at risk for developing drug or alcohol problems. Fortunately, there are numerous resources available for veterans struggling with substance misuse and addiction.

Veteran Substance Misuse Statistics

Researchers have found that more than 1 in 10 veterans have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder (SUD), a number which is slightly higher than the general population.1 A substance use disorder is a diagnosable condition that involves compulsive drug or alcohol use despite the harms that it causes (physically, socially, and psychologically).2

Prescription drug and alcohol misuse among service members is highly prevalent. In 2015, over 4% of active-duty service members reported misusing one or more prescription drug types.3 The majority of prescription drug misuse in the military involves opioid painkillers, including oxycodone (such as OxyContin) and hydrocodone.4

Alcohol misuse poses another significant threat to the physical and mental health of veterans. In 2015, 30% of active-duty service members reported binge drinking alcohol.2 Service members who had experienced more combat exposure reported binge drinking at greater rates.2 Additionally, more than 1 in 3 service personnel met the criteria for hazardous drinking or possible alcohol use disorder (AUD).2

The experience of war is associated with mental health concerns for those returning home, which can lead to or worsen problems with drugs and alcohol. Around 1 in 10 soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have a problem with alcohol or other drugs.5

Approximately 20% of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also meet criteria for a substance use disorder.5 Approximately 82%-93% of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) veterans diagnosed with a substance use disorder also were diagnosed with a co-occurring mental health disorder.4

Why Are Veterans at High-Risk?

Several factors put veterans at high risk for developing addictions to drugs and alcohol:

  • Exposure to trauma. Veterans with a history of multiple deployments and exposure to combat are at high risk of developing PTSD and other mental health issues. Some veterans with PTSD may turn to substance use to deal with symptoms like intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and sleeping problems.2
  • Sexual trauma. Male and female veterans who have experienced sexual assault are at risk for mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Victims of sexual trauma may turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the negative emotional impact of the trauma.6
  • Availability of prescription medications. Veterans may suffer from pain caused by combat-related injuries. In 2009, military doctors wrote around 3.8 million prescriptions for pain relievers. In some cases, veterans may become dependent on these highly addictive drugs.2
  • Barriers to treatment. Veterans who suffer from addiction problems may be reluctant to seek help despite the availability of resources and treatment programs. Some veterans may be deterred by the perceived stigma associated with seeking rehab treatment.3

The Link Between PTSD and Substance Misuse

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that can develop after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event.2 Symptoms can include reliving the event, avoiding reminders of the trauma, negative thoughts and feelings, and increased emotional arousal (which might manifest as insomnia, angry outbursts, concentration difficulties, being easily startled, etc.).7 Veterans and active-duty service members are at higher risk of developing PTSD because of their exposure to dangerous situations. People who develop PTSD following a traumatic event are also at risk for using drugs and alcohol to cope with their symptoms.5

Mental health conditions, including PTSD and depression, are closely linked to substance misuse among both male and female veterans.5,8,9 Approximately 20% of veterans experience both PTSD and drug addiction, a situation known as a dual diagnosis.5

Veterans who are exposed to or witness death, injury, or violence are at risk for developing PTSD.2 Some people may also develop PTSD after learning that a close friend or relative has been exposed to trauma. In addition to experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, symptoms of PTSD can include:

  • Re-experiencing of the traumatic event. This may involve intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, and physical and/or emotional distress after being exposed to reminders of the event.
  • Avoidance of thoughts, feelings, or reminders of the trauma.
  • Negative thoughts or feelings triggered or made worse by the trauma. This may include difficulty recalling aspects of the trauma, negative thoughts about self or others, blaming self or others for the trauma, sadness, decreased interest in activities, social isolation, and inability to feel positive emotions.
  • Increased arousal and reactivity. This can include irritability or anger, engaging in dangerous behaviors, hypervigilance, heightened startle response, concentration problems, and sleeping difficulties.

Veterans may use drugs or alcohol in an attempt to alleviate their PTSD symptoms. Substance misuse may serve as a distraction or a way of avoiding intrusive thoughts, memories, or nightmares of a previous trauma.5,9 While this behavior may ease short-term pain and discomfort, over time drug and alcohol use can intensify symptoms of PTSD. Substance misuse can increase negative feelings and sleeping problems and make it more difficult to work through trauma in treatment.

Trying to quit drugs and alcohol while experiencing symptoms of PTSD can be difficult. Fortunately, treatment programs or centers are available that specialize in helping people with dual diagnosis disorders. These programs work to simultaneously treat concurrent disorders which can aid in long-term recovery.

Prescription Drug Misuse in the Military

Prescription drug misuse is common among veteran and active service members.3 Members of the armed forces may turn to prescription drugs to cope with their experiences during deployment, including symptoms of PTSD. They may also begin to misuse them after obtaining prescriptions for injury-related pain.10 According to United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 50–60% of service members returning from deployment experience chronic pain.11

Veterans are also at risk for suffering from emotional issues like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Because of the stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment, some veterans are more likely to seek help for their chronic pain, during which they are likely to receive prescriptions for potent, addictive painkillers. Veterans who take opioid medications for pain, and experience emotional issues like PTSD, are more vulnerable to developing addictions to these drugs.

Consistent use of opioid medications can quickly lead to the development of physical dependence, a condition in which the individual experiences withdrawal symptoms when they either cut back or stop using the drug.2 Tolerance also tends to develop quickly, and the veteran may find they are turning to higher doses to achieve the relief they’re seeking. These two phenomena may contribute to a developing addiction.

Prescription opioid misuse is a serious concern. Opioid medications carry a high risk for overdose, especially when combined with other drugs and alcohol.10 According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the number of fatal overdoses by veterans was nearly 2x higher than the civilian overdose rate, with overdose rates driven largely by opioids.11

The VA is currently working to combat the prescription drug problem among service members. In 2010, the VA issued guidelines on prescribing medications, which helped decrease the number of opioid prescriptions given to veterans.11 The VA also developed the Integrative Health Coordinating Center (IHCC), which encourages alternative treatments for chronic pain, such as yoga and acupuncture.

Veteran Suicide Risk

The suicide rate among veterans is higher than the civilian suicide rate.7 Almost 18% of suicides in the United States are committed by veterans, with 6,000 veterans dying by suicide annually.7 The VA reported in 2016 that veteran suicide rates were 1.5 times higher than those of non-veterans.7 Additionally, a military personnel study found that about 30% of veterans who committed suicide involved alcohol or drug use.7

Several factors may increase the risk for suicide among veterans, including:12,13

  • Exposure to trauma, such as combat trauma, military sexual trauma, and injuries suffered during service.
  • Symptoms of PTSD, such as troubling memories, anger, and impulsivity.
  • Combat-related guilt, where a person feels a significant burden of remorse and/or shame over actions they committed during service.
  • Coping patterns that involve avoiding or suppressing emotions.
  • Substance use and misuse.

Drug and alcohol misuse plays a significant role in a veteran’s risk for suicide. Veterans who misuse substances are more than 2 times as likely to die by suicide.13 The risk is higher for female veterans, who are more than 5 times as likely to die by suicide. Misuse of prescription drugs like sedatives and opioids is associated with the highest risk of suicide.

Veterans who misuse drugs or alcohol may be at higher risk for suicide because drugs and alcohol can increase a person’s risk of making impulsive and poor decisions.14 Drugs and alcohol may also be used to commit suicide, such as by intentionally overdosing on prescription pills or other drugs.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). The lifeline provides free support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Signs of Drug and Alcohol Addiction

Veterans who are struggling with an inability to quit using drugs or alcohol may meet criteria for a substance use disorder. Signs of a substance use disorder can include:2

  • Taking greater amounts of the drug or drinking for a longer duration of time than intended.
  • Attempting to cut down but being unable to do so.
  • Spending a long time getting, using, or recovering from the drug or alcohol use.
  • Having cravings or strong urges to use a drug or start drinking.
  • Difficulty carrying out responsibilities at home, work, or school.
  • Experiencing social or relationship problems because of drug and/or alcohol use.
  • Spending less time participating in activities you once enjoyed.
  • Using the drug or drinking alcohol in situations that may cause harm.
  • Continuing to use the drug or alcohol even though it causes or worsens physical or psychological problems.
  • Needing greater amounts of the drug and/or alcohol to feel the desired effects.
  • Going through withdrawal after lowering the dose of or stopping use of the drug and/or alcohol.

Friends and family members may also notice certain behaviors that may indicate that their loved one is struggling with addiction. Other signs of addiction include:

  • Emotional changes, such as anger, depression, anxiety, or erratic mood shifts.
  • Changes in appearance, such as weight loss, pupil changes (appearing dilated or constricted), sores on the skin, or track marks.
  • Blackouts or difficulty remembering periods of time.
  • Isolation from family and friends.
  • Financial problems.
  • Participation in criminal activity, such as stealing.
  • Possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia (pipes, needles, etc.).

Rehab Treatment Centers for Veterans

If you’re a veteran seeking recovery, or you’re close to a vet who needs treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, rehab centers can provide:2,5

  • Medications to comfortably manage withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings (for certain types of substance dependence).
  • Medications and individual therapy to address anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Coping skills to help you deal with common life stressors.
  • Training in how to handle relapse triggers.
  • Counseling for couples and families to help repair damaged relationships.
  • Connections to self-help support programs in your community, like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

VA Drug and Alcohol Substance Misuse Programs

Many veterans throughout the United States are struggling with addictions to drugs and alcohol. At the same time, many veterans are also experiencing mental health issues like PTSD, homelessness, and the stress related to returning from deployment and adjusting to civilian life. Because of their past experiences, veterans may benefit from specialized treatment programs that can help address their unique needs.

The VA provides evidence-based addiction treatment for all eligible veterans.15 The VA offers a variety of treatment options, including individual and group therapy, as well as medications. The goals of addiction treatment include:

  • Increasing a veteran’s motivation to change negative behaviors.
  • Teaching skills to deal with triggers and prevent a relapse.
  • Improving communication among family members.
  • Becoming connected with support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Veterans may also participate in addiction treatment outside of the VA. Private, non-profit, and government-funded programs are available throughout the United States.

Veterans seeking inpatient drug or alcohol addiction treatment through the VA or other treatment programs may benefit from different levels of care:

  • Detoxification usually takes place prior to ongoing addiction treatment and is a process wherein the body clears itself of drugs and alcohol. In a medical detox program, doctors and other medical professionals closely monitor a person’s withdrawal symptoms and administer medications to alleviate symptoms.
  • Inpatient/residential rehab programs offer live-in treatment with therapy sessions and recovery meetings that are focused on understanding and coping with addiction. These programs offer 100% drug-free environments and social support.
  • Outpatient substance misuse treatment programs offer therapy sessions each week that the patient will visit the treatment facility to attend. The frequency and intensity of outpatient treatment depends on the program. Participants do not stay in the treatment facility and often reside in their own homes or sober living facilities.

Co-Occurring Mental Health and Substance Misuse Treatment Programs

Dual diagnosis programs offer the opportunity to treat addiction and mental health issues at the same time. Veterans with both addiction and PTSD show the greatest improvements when both conditions are effectively addressed.5 There are several therapies to treat dual diagnosis issues like PTSD and addiction:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy helps people understand the relationship between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and develop healthy coping strategies to manage stress.
  • Cognitive processing therapy aims to modify negative thoughts related to past trauma.
  • Prolonged exposure focuses on gaining control over negative thoughts by talking about and facing reminders of previous traumatic events.

Addiction and dual diagnosis treatment may involve group, individual, and family or couples’ therapy. In some cases, medications may also be prescribed to treat symptoms of PTSD and addiction. The VA recommends the use of opioid agonists, such as methadone or buprenorphine, for opioid addiction.10 These medications can help relieve cravings and prevent withdrawal, which can help reduce the likelihood of a relapse.

Despite the availability of addiction treatment through the VA and other inpatient treatment centers, many veterans go without the help that they need. Only half of military service members who need treatment end up receiving it and an even smaller number receive adequate care.3 Veterans and active-duty service members may avoid seeking treatment because of the perception that getting help is a sign of weakness or concern that they will experience discrimination.

Find a Veterans Drug and Alcohol Rehab Program

Veterans who are struggling with addiction and other mental health issues should know that there is hope. Treatment may help veterans quit using drugs and alcohol, reduce the likelihood of a relapse, adjust to life outside of the military, and cope with previous trauma and other emotional issues. If you are a veteran struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, consider taking the first step in recovery and seeking help. We are available any time of day or night to discuss your treatment options. Call .

Depending on where you are, you may find there is not an appropriate treatment program in your area. However, if there are facilities nearby, consider the pros and cons of being admitted to a local program versus traveling out of state. Our rehab directory can help you search through treatment providers throughout the United States. Some popular states include California, Florida, and Texas.

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