Reasons for Substance Use in Veterans: How You Can Help

By November 3, 2021Recovery
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Veterans devoted their lives to protecting America. Now, it’s our turn to help those who helped us.

Sixty-seven years ago, Congress passed legislation designating November 11th as Veterans Day. However, you may not understand how service affected their mental health. While devoting a day to thank veterans for their service is one way to express a nation’s gratitude to the retired military, another more powerful method is to help veterans cope with their substance addiction and mental illness. For this reason, you can learn how to talk with your veteran friends or family about how their experiences in the military affect their emotional and physical well-being.

Experiences Shape Lives

Members of the military encounter unique experiences throughout their career like combat deployment, frequent relocations, and transitioning into civilian life after retirement. These life-altering events can increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety. As a result, in the early 2000’s the rate of suicide among those in the military increased significantly. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a research article stating veterans are at an increased risk of suicide if they have the following characteristics:

  • If they are male
  • Have depression
  • Binge drink

The Risks of Deployment

Deployment can expose military personnel to hazardous situations they are not mentally or emotionally equipped to handle due to a lack of coping skills. Some retired military members turn to alcohol or drugs to alleviate or mask negative emotions. According to the article, There is a Dire Need to Improve, More Effectively Treat Mental Health Disorders for Returning Veterans by Pharmacy Times, between “37% to 50% of Afghanistan or Iraq War veterans were diagnosed with a mental health disorder”. These disorders are often linked with substance use disorder (SUD) because veterans experience stress and mental changes from returning home, along with sleep disorders, traumatic brain injury, or domestic violence. If you know a veteran struggling with any of these issues, don’t be afraid to talk to them about their emotions and guide them to help. Substance addiction treatment centers are equipped to guide veterans through their experiences and help them reach their goal of lasting sobriety.

The Risks of Substance Use Disorders

Deployment, combat, trauma, and reintegration into civilian life are all risk factors leading to a SUD. For example, deployed veterans often begin smoking, develop unhealthy drinking habits, partake in substance use, or engage in risky behaviors. Veterans hospitalized from a combat injury or traumatic experience are at an increased risk of substance addiction and mental health disorders. The article Substance Use Disorders in Military Veterans: Prevalence and Treatment Challenges also states one in ten veterans is diagnosed with a SUD. Some of the reasons for substance addiction include:

  • Pain
  • Suicidal tendencies
  • Trauma
  • Homelessness

Veterans and Substance Addiction

The rates of illegal substance use increase after retiring from the military. Many retired veterans report using substances and reveal their drug of choice is marijuana. The National Institute on Drug Abuse cited a rise of approximately 50%. Two other substances worth noting after retirement are heroin or cocaine.

  • Opioids: Pain management creates a unique situation for veterans. The article, Severe pain in veterans: The Effect of Age and Sex, and Comparisons With the General Population, found two-thirds of their study population reported pain, including severe pain. The increase in opioid use and overdoses is primarily from heroin and synthetic opioids, not pain management prescriptions.
  • Alcohol: Veterans are more likely to abuse alcohol than their civilian peers.

The stigma of a SUD can make admitting a dependence or addiction difficult. In recent years, the Department of Defense (DOD) examined how they can support veterans seeking help for substance addiction. The DOD programs focused on reducing the stigma of a SUD and how finding a substance addiction treatment center can aid those suffering from one. Another option to help your loved one is to reach out to your local substance addiction center to find out how they treat veterans with a SUD.

How to Help

You can help veterans address their emotional and physical needs by being an advocate and an active part of their lives. You can start by asking your loved ones to share their experiences with you. If they are reluctant to speak, don’t push and just be patient. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to be present with them. Once your presence is accepted, you can gently begin to talk with them about what you notice about them. You can express concern and offer to help them find a substance addiction center. Remember not to place judgment on them or criticize their choices. Judgment can quickly shut down lines of communication. What if you don’t know a veteran but would like to become involved in helping one in need? Here are a few ways you can be a positive advocate and support system:

  • Volunteer at a local veterans organization.
  • Reach out and offer help to a veteran with daily tasks.
  • Donate to veterans charities that support mental health and substance addiction awareness.
  • Be a guide. Refer a veteran to a substance addiction center that will address their needs.

Veterans experience situations and life-altering events the general population will never understand. Service includes relocations, trauma, combat, and reintegration into civilian life. The transition from the military into a life with their family, friends, or community can be difficult. Veterans also undergo an identity change. They are no longer active military. Instead, they are civilians for the first time in years. The weight of finding a new way to connect with others or identify as a person in society can increase the risk of a substance use disorder. Alta Centers is committed to every person in treatment with us based on our belief in hope. Your courage to become sober drives us to guide you through the detox process and help you find a healthy balance of mental and physical health. Alta Centers welcomes you and provides the opportunity for you to express your feelings in an open and non-judgmental environment. To learn more, call (888) 203-2583.

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