Veteran substance abuse is a significant issue throughout the United States. In fact, according to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2019, 26.9% of veterans abused illicit drugs. While approximately 80.8% (four in five) abused alcohol, and 7.7% (one in 13) misused both.
What is Substance Use Disorder (SUD)?
Substance use disorder (SUD), often called “addiction,” is a mental health disorder. This disorder causes people to have trouble controlling their use of drugs, alcohol, and other substances. This misuse, when left untreated, can start influencing many areas of life.
Mental illness, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), is also a considerable concern among military personnel. Substance abuse can result in mental health problems. Research involving returning soldiers shows that 20% of active soldiers and 42% of reserve component soldiers required mental health treatment. These statistics come directly from clinicians.
Some individuals attempt to cope with symptoms of PTSD by using alcohol or drugs. There’s a relationship between PTSD and substance abuse, such as using drugs or drinking too much. More than two of 10 veterans with PTSD also deal with Substance Use Disorder.
Nearly one out of every three veterans seeking veteran substance abuse treatment also has PTSD. Fortunately, some treatments help treat both substance abuse and PTSD simultaneously.At Solara Mental Health Treatment Center in San Diego, we take Veterans’ mental health seriously. We do everything in our power to provide our Veterans in need with the adequate treatment they deserve.
Signs of Substance Abuse in Veterans
Some signs of Veteran substance abuse include:
- Lack of ability to stop using drugs or drinking, even though there are negative consequences
- Increased urge to use drugs or drink
- Experiencing symptoms of withdrawal or feeling sick when drug use or drinking stops
- Change in relationships because of drug use or drinking
- Increased tolerance where there’s an increased need for more potent drugs or more alcohol over time to achieve the desired effect
- Feeling anxious or depressed about their substance use
The good news is that recovery from SUD or alcohol abuse is possible.
There are treatments available to veterans, such as:
- Specialized therapy
- In- and outpatient care
- Support groups
Risk Factors for Veterans Substance Abuse
The unique military culture and stresses of deployments provide both protective factors and risks related to substance abuse. Active-duty personnel faces a unique set of challenges while they are deployed.
Deployment is linked with:
- Drug use
- Unhealthy drinking
- Smoking initiation
- Risky behaviors
Many factors contribute to the stigma of drug use while in the military. These factors include lack of confidentiality, zero-tolerance policies, and mandatory random drug testing. The stigma and consequences of drug use can discourage many who require treatment from getting it.
Veterans are also impacted immensely by several critical problems related to substance abuse, such as:
- Environmental stressors
- Suicide risk
Many Veterans have unique pain-management problems. Two-thirds of veterans report experiencing pain. Over 9% report dealing with severe pain, whereas only 6.4% of non-veterans report experiencing severe pain. This puts Veterans at a greater risk for an accidental overdose of opioid pain relievers.
Increased combat exposure that involves trauma and violence experienced by individuals who serve leads to a higher risk of alcohol abuse.
All Veterans go through a readjustment period after leaving the military. They need to adjust to re-entering their lives with friends, family, and their community. This leaves them with unique mental health issues. Various military personnel-specific environmental stressors have been associated with an increased SUD risk among Veterans and military personnel, including:
- Combat exposure
- Post-deployment reintegration/civilian issues
Among Veterans seeking first-time care within the Veterans Health Administration system, almost 11% meet SUD diagnosis criteria.
Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions
Many Veterans with Substance Use Disorder often have a co-occurring mental health disorder. These disorders may include PTSD, anxiety, or depression.
Those injured during combat, hospitalized, or experienced trauma have a greater risk for increased drug or alcohol use. Veterans with Substance Use Disorder are three to four times more likely to be diagnosed with depression or PTSD.
Among recent Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, 63% who receive a SUD diagnosis also meet PTSD criteria. Veterans with a dual diagnosis of SUDs and PTSD have a greater risk of having additional co-occurring disorders. These disorders can be both medical and psychiatric.
These disorders may include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorders
- Depressive disorders
- Personality disorders
In the military, substance abuse frequently precedes suicidal behavior. Drug or alcohol use was involved in around 30% of suicides in the Army. In 2003, substance abuse was related to over 45% of veteran suicide attempts. Also, approximately 20% of high-risk behavior fatalities were linked to drug or alcohol overdose.
It’s estimated that around 11% of homeless adults are U.S. military Veterans. And these homeless Veterans are dealing with unique barriers and challenges to SUD treatment. It is essential to identify the needs of homeless veterans. By identifying what challenges and needs the person has, a foundation for assistance can occur.
Some factors that help support homeless veterans are:
- Outreach services
- Supportive services
- Housing assistance
- Case management
- Mental health treatment
- Substance abuse treatment
Veterans may be more likely to accept treatment for substance abuse when they have mental health and housing security.
Treatment for Substance Abuse in Veterans
For Veterans with substance use disorders or alcoholism, the essential first steps toward lasting recovery are detox and medication management. This is the case for veterans with co-occurring disorders as well. Before starting treatment at Solara Mental Health, supervised medical detoxification may be required. We refer them to one of our partnering centers, which are long-established, licensed, and very credible detox facility.
Through detoxification, patients go through the physical process where their bodies expel toxins (i.e., drugs, alcohol, medications, etc.) under the supervision of a physician who monitors the whole detox process. The length of this process will vary based on the client’s needs.
Doctors will often prescribe detox medications to keep our clients comfortable during the detox process if needed. During this period, rest is typical but they may also engage in other activities when they feel they can.
Most clients participating in our program have a few medications prescribed to them. Our staff and program psychiatrist will review and assess all medication regimens. We do this to ensure our clients take the most effective medication possible. Our mental health professionals will ensure that clients feel comfortable with prescribed medicines.
Help for Veterans in San Diego
Addiction and substance abuse are common mental health disorders that veterans struggle with. Addiction can be treated with psychotherapy and medication management when needed. Veterans often turn to substances when struggling with mental health conditions like PTSD, depression, or anxiety.
Solara Mental Health in San Diego, CA, offers mental health services to veterans. If you or a veteran you love are struggling with mental health, reach out to Solara today. Our team can answer any questions you may have and give you a better understanding of our veteran mental health services.