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Veterans Drug Addiction and Treatment

Many veterans come back from war with intense physical pain as well as emotional and mental scars from their experiences. They may be prescribed pain medication and sometimes medication for symptoms of mental health disorders, especially for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

These drugs are often meant to be used on a short-term basis, but it can take a very long time to move beyond the physical and emotional trauma of war. As a result, veterans may find themselves becoming addicted to one or a combination of prescription medication, illegal drugs, or alcohol. If you are using more and more of a substance or are using substances in a way they are not intended for and you can’t seem to stop the pattern, you might be seeing signs of addiction.

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If you are looking for help for yourself or a loved one, you can find the help you need in a drug rehab program. Going through rehab doesn’t mean you are weak; instead, overcoming a substance addiction can show incredible strength. You can help yourself, your family, and your community by getting help for addiction.

What Substances Can Lead to Addiction?

When you think of drug addiction, you might think of illegal street drugs like heroin or cocaine. While these can definitely cause addiction, certain prescription drugs and alcohol can as well.

The 2015 Department of Defense Health Related Behaviors Survey (HRBS) revealed that about 1 in 3 service members (30%) were current binge drinkers. When it comes to opioid pain relievers, 21% of service members reported using opioids in the past year. While the percentage of service members who were using opioids went down from 10.4% in 2011 to 6.2% in 2015, opioids were still more likely to be abused than sedatives, stimulants, and anabolic steroids—2.4% used opioids without a prescription and 0.7% overused them.1

Alcohol

Alcohol use disorders (AUDs) are the most common form of substance use disorders (SUDs) for service members. Due to the high chance of being exposed to combat that involves violence and trauma, military personnel have an increased risk of problematic drinking.2 For active duty members, the 2015 HRBS report revealed that 5.4% of military personnel were heavy drinkers.2

For veterans, a 2017 study found that, compared to non-veterans, 56.6% were more likely to use alcohol and 7.5% were more likely to report heavy alcohol use.2

Illicit Drugs

Among veterans, illicit drug use is around 4%.11 While marijuana is the illicit drug most often used by veterans, with 3.5% reporting use and the use of other illicit drugs is reported at 1.7%.2,11 And even though marijuana and alcohol are more often used and possibly abused by veterans, more than 10% of veterans who were admitted to rehab for substance use disorders were being treated for heroin and cocaine.2 Of the veterans who are admitted to rehab for SUDs, 65% report that alcohol is what they most commonly misuse.2

Prescription Medications

Veterans may be prescribed medication for pain relief in addition to medication that may help ease emotional symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress.

In 2015, a little more than 4% of active-duty service members reported abusing one or more prescription.2 While the percentage of active-duty personnel using pain relievers has decreased significantly from 2011 to 2015, they still pose a major issue for service members. In particular, opioid use disorder often beings with a prescription following an injury but, due to how addictive the opioids can be and the mental health challenges some military personnel experience, regular use may lead to addiction.2

For veterans, pain management can be a huge challenge, with two-thirds reporting that they experience pain in 2015, with over 9% reporting that they were dealing with severe pain, which leads to a greater chance of accidental overdose.2 Opioid overdoses for veterans have increased, going from 14% in 2010 to 21% in 2016.2

In addition, some veterans may be reluctant to go off prescription medications because they think their pain or emotional symptoms will return and that other methods won’t work as well.

PTSD and Substance Abuse

After going through a trauma (including combat and assault), most people will have some kind of stress reaction. If, after a few months, the reactions have not gone away, a possible diagnosis may be PTSD.3 There are various factors that can increase the likelihood that someone will have PTSD, including being involved in a long-lasting traumatic event or suffering an injury during the event. In addition, combat trauma also makes people more likely to develop PTSD.4

There are some veterans who drink alcohol and rely on prescription or street drugs to deal with PTSD. When hard-to-handle memories, flashbacks, and other symptoms come, alcohol and drugs are misused as a means of escape and coping. In fact, studies have shown that PTSD and substance abuse are strongly related for those people who served in the military.5 More than 2 of 10 veterans who have PTSD also have SUD, and about 1 of every 3 veterans who seek treatment for SUD also has PTSD.5

Of those who are veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, 63% who have been diagnosed with SUDs also met the benchmarks for PTSD.2 Those who have been diagnosed with SUDs and PTSD have a higher likelihood of also having additional co-occurring psychiatric and medical conditions, including anxiety disorders, seizures, liver disease, and bipolar disorder.2

In addition to PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI) may also lead to addiction. A TBI occurs when there is a shock or blow to the head that alters the way the brain works.6 A TBI can lead to symptoms including depression, anxiety, headaches, mood swings, and slowed thinking, and these symptoms can cause great frustration that may lead to alcohol or drug abuse to help cope with the issues.


How Do You Know You Have an Addiction?

Maybe you drink more than you did before the war or you keep taking more prescription pills to deal with the pain, but you’re not sure if you’re addicted. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help determine if it’s time to seek help for an addiction.

  • Have I tried to control my drug or alcohol use, but it doesn’t seem to work?
  • Do I need to take more and more of the same drug for it to work as well as it used to?
  • When I stop using drugs after prolonged use, do I experience trouble sleeping, depression, nausea, anxiety, restlessness, shaking, or other withdrawal symptoms?
  • Do I think about drugs constantly, use them constantly, and skip activities I used to engage in because of drugs?
  • Have drugs caused me to black out, experience paranoia and depression, or other symptoms that are bad for me, but these symptoms didn’t stop me from using them again?

If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, you are showing some of the signs and symptoms of addiction. But don’t worry—you have options available to you. Many treatment possibilities exist that you can try, plus there are many support systems available to help you succeed.

Why Should You Stop Using Drugs?

In addition to improving your life and the lives of your loved ones, there are many other reasons why it’s a good idea to quit. Drug abuse:7,8

  • Costs the United States more than $740 billion per year from lost productivity, health care costs, and legal costs.
  • Can cause health problems and addiction.
  • Can lead to death from overdose or other drug-related complications.
  • Has a negative impact on families.
  • Can lead to crime and homelessness.
  • Can spread infectious diseases.
  • Can cause health problems in unborn children of pregnant drug users.

Treating your substance use disorder can help improve your own life and the lives of those around you. While drugs or alcohol might help you mask the pain or emotional symptoms, there are many benefits of overcoming an addiction, such as:

  • Your mental and physical health and well-being could improve.
  • You could develop better relationships with friends, family, and coworkers.
  • You’d be able to spend more time on activities you used to enjoy, or new activities.
  • You could find a new way to contribute to society, such as through volunteering or a job.
  • You could discover new healthier ways to deal with mental and physical symptoms, such as yoga, counseling, exercise, and more.
  • You could find other people who are going through similar experiences and try to help each other through it.Also, quitting can help improve your own life and the lives of those around you. While drugs or alcohol might help you deal with pain or emotional symptoms, there are many benefits of overcoming an addiction, such as:

Drug Rehab for Veterans

If you’re a veteran and you’re ready to find help for your addiction, or if you’re here looking for help for a loved one, there are many options available to you. You no longer have to go through this alone.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is one of the best places for treatment as a veteran. It offers VA Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Treatment Programs that are located around the country. The VA offers specialized help for veterans because they know your unique needs, including the fact that PTSD can be a factor in substance use disorders. The VA offers various treatment methods for drug and alcohol abuse that, depending on your individual case, can include:9

  • Medications
  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Couples counseling
  • Help making lifestyle changes

The non-profit organization Veterans Healing Initiative (VHI) can also assist you with getting the help you need. The VHI helps pay for treatment and offers a 24-hour hotline. They also work to spread awareness of the specific needs of veterans. This program is especially beneficial for veterans without VA benefits and those who are uninsured or underinsured.

Care for Veterans Outside of VA with the MISSION Act

For veterans who are faced with mental health and substance use disorders, the VA can offer quality treatment through inpatient rehab programs. However, it’s possible that VA treatment centers may not have availability or be accessible for some veterans who are seeking treatment for both their substance use disorders and their mental health issues. In order to ensure that any veterans who desire treatment receive care, the VA has the MISSION Act, which expands veteran access to health care both in VA facilities and from approved general providers in the community.9

Typically, the VA will need to give veterans approval before they can pursue treatment from a community care provider. Approval is based on eligibility requirements, availability of VA care, and their own needs. Once they have approval, veterans are able to obtain alcohol and drug rehab via community care, which allows them to get treatment from private rehab centers in their communities.10

While veterans can receive care outside of VA, they can only receive that care from VA-approved community care providers (CCPs). American Addiction Centers’ Desert Hope and Recovery First are both approved VA CCPs. Each facility has Salute to Recovery programs that were created to treat veterans with both SUDs and mental health disorders. Treatment includes pain management, emotion regulation, trauma groups, coping skills, grief and loss, cognitive behavioral therapy, relapse prevention, and recreational therapy. Much of the staff at each facility is made up of veterans who are able to provide a supportive and safe environment where veterans can openly discuss their struggles and experiences.

In addition to treatment options specific to veterans, there are many regular drug treatment facilities open to anyone that are found throughout the country. While these may or may not offer specialized treatment for the specific problems veterans face, they can still give medical treatment, counseling, and tools to overcome addiction. If you’d like help locating a rehab facility that can help you or a veteran in your life, contact us today.

Sources

  1. RAND Corporation. (2018). 2015 Department of Defense Health Related Behaviors Survey (HRBS).
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). DrugFacts: General Risk of Substance Use Disorders.
  3. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). What is PTSD?
  4. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). PTSD Basics.
  5. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans.
  6. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2018). After a Traumatic Brain Injury.
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Trends & Statistics.
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.
  9. S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). VA MISSION Act.
  10. S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). Community Care.
  11. Teeters, J.B., Lancaster, C.L., Brown, D.G., Back, S.E. (2017). Substance use disorders in military veterans: prevalence and treatment challenges. Subst Abuse Rehabil, 8, 69-77.

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