Addiction and substance use disorders (SUDs) are a significant problem for our nation’s military veterans. According to a study in 2017 published in Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, “The most prevalent types of substance use problems among male and female veterans include heavy episodic drinking and cigarette smoking. However, the realities of military service can also lead to drug addictions as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain syndrome.
For many U.S. combat (and non-active) veterans, coping with everyday life can become traumatic and debilitating. It can be difficult to reintegrate into civilian society and, often, addiction and substance abuse become a means for survival as veterans attempt to numb the memories or physical pain.
No matter the cause or type of a veteran’s addiction, it is important to understand that you are not alone. There are ways to overcome the physical, mental, and emotional pain – as well as the addictions that plague our country’s military veterans.
How many veterans are affected by addiction?
According to the Mental Health Association in Pennsylvania, “Approximately 50 percent of returning service members who need treatment for mental health conditions seek it, but only slightly more than half who receive treatment receive adequate care.”
Among veterans presenting for first-time care within the Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system, approximately 11 percent meet criteria for a diagnosis of SUD. This diagnosis often plays a part in self-harm/suicide, according to a 2017 article by the National Institutes of Health.
One Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) study from 2016 found that of military personnel, about 30 percent of completed suicides were preceded by alcohol and drug use, and an estimated 20 percent of high-risk behavior deaths were attributed to alcohol or drug overdose.
Substance abuse is on the rise among U.S. veterans. In fact, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) released findings of a study which indicate that American veterans experience a higher prevalence of pain and more severe pain than nonveterans, with young and middle-aged veterans suffering the most. These findings come from an analysis of the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) by the lead epidemiologist at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health.
In addition, the Military Times has found that from 2006 through 2018-to-date, 15,851 active-duty personnel and mobilized reservists have died while serving in the U.S. armed forces, but just 28 percent were killed during active combat duty. Seventy-two percent – 11,341 deaths – occurred under circumstances, which were unrelated to ongoing wars. About 14 percent of these deaths were related to substance abuse.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs identifies a correlation between PTSD and addiction. For those who do not have an addiction problem before experiencing a traumatic event, developing PTSD can increase the risk that he or she will develop an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. The statistics are quite staggering:
- More than 2 out of 10 veterans with PTSD also have substance use disorders.
- Veterans who suffer from PTSD and alcohol issues tend to be binge drinkers.
- Almost 1 out of every 3 veterans seeking treatment for a substance use disorder also is suffering from PTSD.
- The number of veterans diagnosed with PTSD who smoke cigarettes and cigars (6 out of 10) is almost twice that of those who have not been diagnosed (3 out of 10).
Symptoms of PTSD may include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Problems with memory
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Low self-esteem/self-worth
- Difficulty concentrating
- Problems with relationships
- Self-destructive behavior (self-harm or substance abuse)
Co-occurring PTSD and addiction can compound one’s problems. Typically, if someone has both PTSD and SUD, it is likely that he or she also has other health problems. Substance use disorders can make the sleep problems, feelings of numbness, avoidance, and productivity associated with PTSD even worse. Substance use often enables veterans to avoid the memories from their time in the military that are causing them pain, but this avoidance serves only to delay an individual’s treatment. Such problems include:
- Health problems (including physical pain)
- Difficulty with job retention
- Challenges with social integration
- Difficulty with family and peer relationships.
There are various forms of addiction, one of which is abuse of substances such as:
- Amphetamines (e.g., meth)
- Cannabis (i.e., marijuana)
- Opioids (e.g., heroin)
- Phencyclidine (i.e., PCP)
- Prescription Drugs (e.g., sedatives, hypnotics, anxiolytics)
Veterans and civilians alike, use alcohol to mark many occasions. It is used for leisure, social, celebrations, unity, and camaraderie. It is not much of a surprise that, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), alcohol use disorders are the most prevalent forms of addiction among military veterans.
A study referenced by the NIH, which examined data collected as part of the National Survey in Drug Use and Health found that, compared to their nonveteran counterparts, veterans were more likely to use alcohol (56.6 percent vs. 50.8 percent in a 1-month period) and to report heavy use of alcohol (7.5 percent vs. 6.5 percent in a 1-month period).
Those with higher levels of exposure to combat are at greater risk of problematic alcohol use and are more likely to engage in heavy (26.8 percent) and binge (54.8 percent) drinking relative to other military personnel (17 percent and 45 percent, respectively).
The problem with alcohol is especially concerning. Alcohol is the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.
Also alarming is that veterans are twice as likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose compared to the general population. A 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine confirmed, however, that active duty military personnel have a lower level of illicit drug use than civilians, yet are more likely to abuse prescription drugs. The study examined the prevalence of chronic pain and opioid use among 2,500 soldiers following deployment. Forty-four percent had chronic pain and 15 percent regularly used opioids.
Rep. Tim Murphy, a commander in the Navy Reserve who practices psychology at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., in 2017 noted that there were more U.S. deaths tied to drug overdoses than the 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
For service members who are returning from active war zones, it is not uncommon to come back with a host of challenges including PTSD, depression, or traumatic brain injuries. Often these injuries and illnesses require medication such as opioids to reduce the pain. However, some individuals may misuse these medications, leading to addiction.
In an audit conducted amongst 20 VA rehabilitation facilities, it was found that 10 percent of patients were provided more than one week’s supply of narcotics at one time (to self-administer). Prescription holders are three times more likely to misuse prescription opioids than those without prescriptions. The Journal of Pain and Symptom Management (JPSM) found that 16.3 percent of veterans shared prescriptions to manage pain, while 29 percent relied on alcohol or street drugs to deal with the pain.
What are the symptoms of a substance use disorder (SUD)?
The NIH, as adapted from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, has listed substance use disorders (SUD) as a pattern of use that results in marked distress and/or impairment, with two or more of the following symptoms over the course of a twelve-month period:
- Using the substance in larger amounts or over a longer time than intended.
- Unsuccessful attempts or persistent desire to reduce use.
- Too much time spent on obtaining, using, and/or recovering from the effects of the substance.
- A strong craving for the substance.
- Significant interference with roles at work, school, or home.
- Continued use despite recurrent social or interpersonal consequences.
- Reducing or giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of the substance use.
- Substance use in situations in which it may be physically hazardous.
- Substance use despite recurrent or persistent physical or psychological consequences.
- Tolerance of the substance.
- Withdrawal from the substance.
What should you do if you or a loved one is suffering from addiction?
The effects of addiction can be devastating, affecting everything from your job and relationships, to your ability to function independently.
Located in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, New Vitae Wellness and Recovery Center works with veterans to help them overcome their addiction and achieve their personal wellness goals. New Vitae, which serves Bucks County, the Lehigh Valley, and the surrounding Philadelphia counties, offers medication management, medication assistance treatment, and other holistic supports, including cutting-edge treatments such as deep transcranial magnetic stimulation services that directly stimulate the brain.
New Vitae Wellness and Recover offers integrated clinical services which are available as daily or weekly treatments, while it also provides short- and long-term residential treatment options.
New Vitae’s trauma-informed services help to foster sober living, while its collaborative approach helps to connect individuals with their peers and the community at large, including involvement with 12-step programs.
The Center creates a personalized plan of care, utilizing small group sizes and self-help groups, and encouraging individuals to attend consistently. Through a lens of psycho-education, it reinforces the tools needed to maintain lasting sobriety and emotional stability.
Its program is collaborative, combining integrated psychiatric services, individual and group therapy, family therapy, and addictions counseling/education to help individuals to achieve recovery.
New Vitae Equals New Life
At New Vitae Wellness and Recovery, freedom from co-occurring disorders focuses on unifying families, returning to or building a new career, and renewing hope for the future.
New Vitae Wellness and Recovery’s professional proudly work with the services that veterans receive from the VA. The care providers work with local offices to provide behavioral health services while also helping veterans to maintain a connection with other support systems including family, friends, other veterans, and the community as a whole. Costs often can be offset by insurance or by funding for veterans who qualify for appropriated funds.
For those who suffer from co-occurring PTSD and SUDs, evidence has shown that the following therapies and practices, offered by New Vitae Wellness and Recovery, may prove helpful:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical Behavioral Informed Therapy
- Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)
- Relapse prevention
- Motivational interviewing
- Relaxation skill building
- Assertive communication skills training
New Vitae Wellness and Recovery Center is licensed by the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health Substance Abuse Services (OMHSAS) and the Division of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP), and is accredited by the Joint Commission.
What can be done to reduce the risk of addiction?
Addiction can be tough to battle. There are many approaches that can mitigate the risk of developing a dependency. Tactics to consider include:
- Addressing any personal addiction history
- Understand your triggers and the things that led to your addiction and any relapses you may have encountered. Self-awareness is key to mitigating risks.
- Tackling negative thoughts and feelings
- Various emotional and psychological issues may often increase the risk of addiction. Finding other methods for dealing with these issues is extremely important, because, as mentioned, addiction is often highly correlated with mental health and PTSD.
- Decreasing your access and exposure
- Control the things that you can control. For example, if you require prescription medication for anxiety (some of which are highly addictive), talk to your physician about prescribing non-addictive anti-depressant medications.
- Making lifestyle changes
- Changing your lifestyle can help to make a difference in your life. Things such as building a reliable support network, volunteering, looking carefully at whom you are spending time with, among other things, can impact recovery from addiction.
What You Need to Remember
It’s important to understand that addiction can affect anyone regardless of race, religion, gender, or socio-economic status. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome it.
For more information about services provided and the ways New Vitae Wellness and Recovery can help, call 610-965-9021 today.