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Mental illness among veterans is often referred to as war’s invisible wound. Veterans and their families have a difficult time coping with the emotional and psychological challenges that are often a part of post-active duty life. Many veterans returning home from combat and military deployment struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, grief, and suicide ideation. It’s not uncommon for veterans to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol in an effort to manage their emotions and/or physical pain.
Mental illness can affect anyone, no matter how strong the family unit is or how long the veteran was deployed. If a substance abuse issue is a part of the struggle, it’s critical to explore treatments that address the entire picture, not just the drug problem.
Alcohol, Drug, and Opioid Misuse Among Veterans
Veterans often deal with both mental and physical pain and drug use is frequently used as a coping mechanism. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), alcohol and drug use are strongly associated with experience with or exposure to violent combat. As a result of such exposure, the soldier is afraid of his/her personal safety and wellbeing.
Alcohol: According to a study completed in 2010 in Addictive Behaviors, alcohol misuse was more common among younger male veterans, veterans who served in the Army or Marine Corps, and veterans who reported symptoms of PTSD and depression. Veterans from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom who were exposed to combat were more likely to abuse alcohol than those who were not. Among the veterans in this particular study, 28% screened positive for alcohol misuse, 37.3% for PTSD, and 37.3% for depression; 76.6% of PTSD cases also screened positive for depression.
Prescription Drug Abuse: Anxiety and sleep issues are common among veterans, and they are often prescribed benzodiazepines (benzos) like Valium, Ambien, or Xanax to help them manage their symptoms. Some are inaccurately prescribed benzos to help them treat their PTSD despite the fact that there’s zero evidence showing that benzos can be effective for this condition. Veterans risk addiction when they take more of the prescribed drug than recommended to feel the same effects, or they take other drugs to cope with the issues that are not properly addressed.
Opioids: The opioid epidemic has hit the veteran community, largely in part to the physical pain veterans try to alleviate. Severe pain is 40 percent more common in veterans than non-veterans, and almost 60 percent of veterans who were in the Middle East and 50 percent of older veterans live with chronic pain. Just like civilians, veterans are at risk for addiction to opioids or other pain medicines that are prescribed after an injury.
Substance Abuse Treatment for Veterans
Substance abuse problems among veterans often have deep roots in mental and/or physical illnesses that need to be addressed; effective substance abuse treatment programs will examine the relationship among mental health, substance abuse, and trauma. The most effective treatment are those that treat the whole person, not just the addiction.
Although veterans who have not been dishonorably discharged have access to free substance abuse therapy via the Department of Veteran Affairs, many veterans face logistical challenges and social stigmas, or they fear the quality of care isn’t comprehensive enough for the help they need. Fortunately, there are other programs and rehabilitation centers that can help.
The Beach House Center for Recovery provides addiction treatment programs that offer medical care, therapy, and wellness opportunities. Private or employer-provided health insurance can help cover the costs of treatment and some non-profit groups offer scholarships and financial assistance to veterans demonstrating financial need. Many recovery centers offer payment programs as well.
The first part of substance abuse treatment is medical detoxification (drug detox). It is highly recommended that detox (clearing the substance from the body) is only done under medical supervision and 24-hour inpatient rehab care. After the substance is properly cleared from the body, additional treatment can begin.
Treating co-occurring disorders such as substance abuse and mental health illness takes comprehensive and individualized care. Treatment often involves behavioral therapy that encourages active involvement from the veteran. Therapists are culturally aware of the strain put on veterans post-battle, and they engage veterans in comprehensive treatments.
For those veterans dealing with an addiction to opioids or alcohol, recovery might involve medication-assisted treatment (MAT) in which FDA-approved medications are used to treat substance abuse addictions by reducing the chance of overdose and alleviating withdrawal symptoms. MAT must be done under the care of a trained medical practitioner. Recovery is most effective when MAT is done in conjunction with behavioral therapy.
Seek Professional Help for Substance Abuse
The soldier’s family deals with its own mental health issues. In 2010, roughly one-fifth of spouses participated in counseling for stress, family, and/or marital issues even though more than half of them reported experiencing stress related to finances, deployment, children, and other family concerns. Furthermore, one-third of children who have at least one parent deployed struggles with anxiety, depression, and other behavioral issues. It’s important for the family and the veteran to reach out for help. It’s impossible to take care of another’s well-being when your own is compromised. Substance abuse is not an issue anyone should tackle alone. It’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s unfortunately very common among the veteran population.
If you think your loved one might be struggling with a substance abuse issue, please seek help today. As difficult as it may be to approach the topic, waiting for the issue to resolve itself never happens. If you’re not sure how to approach it, contact your primary care physician for help, or speak to a professional confidentially 24/7 at the Beach House Center for Recovery for intervention guidelines. You are not alone.