How Loved Ones Can Help Returning Veterans with Substance Use Disorder

Military veterans often struggle with the return home from combat missions and placement overseas. They witness many things while abroad but they also suffer from mental health conditions and addictions at a higher rate than the average population when they are home. They exhibit posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and pain. Mentally they struggle with different conditions which can create a perfect storm of using substances to cope. Some have become addicted to opioids used to relieve physical pain from combat injuries. When families understand how addiction happens, they can better support their loved ones in getting the help they need.

How Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Occurs

Deployment is stressful for veterans who are working in environments where they may encounter violence, war, and death. Soldiers who return from deployment are screened for substance use and mental health concerns but they still struggle to find support. Women and men are both experiencing the struggle for their mental and physical health. Many soldiers don’t talk about their substance use for fear of being ostracized and kicked out of the military. Because this is their livelihood and chosen profession, they fear repercussions that impact their family, as well. Opioid use has increased, as well, mainly due to how it is used therapeutically. Increased rates of opioid use among veterans have caused pain and suffering emotionally and within families. A struggle that veterans can face is how best to support underlying conditions as the reason for substance use and help families support their loved ones.

Mental Health Conditions and Substance Use

Veterans often struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when they return from combat. This can co-occur along with alcoholism and the use of other substances to cope with the challenges they face. Co-occurring substance use disorder and mental health challenges are difficult to treat without the right support. Many go undiagnosed for a long time. Pain among soldiers who experience deployment overseas is one reason they seek medication when they return. From this, they struggle to deal with their conditions effectively without the right treatment plans in place with professional support. 

Seeking Help for Veterans

Diagnosis for veterans is important because it helps them find appropriate support. Loved ones who are helping a veteran integrate into civilian life should be screened for mental health and physical issues. The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) is one way to self-report any issues. It may ask how often or how many times alcohol was consumed and how it was consumed. Formal assessments can be done with the assistance of veterans organizations or professional treatment facility. Addiction challenges tend to co-occur among veterans and lead to challenges that need to be treated together. This may look like:

  • Psychiatric evaluation
  • Medication adjustments
  • Psychological counseling for individual and family
  • Addiction screening

Medications should be carefully evaluated or distributed. Opioids can become addictive. Naltrexone and disulfiram are sometimes used but it depends on the individual and the place they go for support. Treatment centers often focus on the veteran and their families so they can integrate treatment altogether. 

Family Support Matters

Addiction impacts everyone in the family, not just the veteran living with the condition. For friends and family members, there are ways to support them through this challenging time. Recognize the signs of addiction as the primary concern. If things don’t seem right, it may be time to keep track of what is showing up and how the person is behaving. Research different treatment options and offer understanding. Compassion goes a long way as nobody knows what someone has experienced. Some of the key signs to look out for might include:

  • Work/life balance challenges (missing work, family outings, etc)
  • Lack of energy
  • Reduced motivation to hit goals 
  • Neglecting family and friends or self-care
  • Strong cravings for substances

With signs of abuse, they may be subtle but they may be masked by mental health symptoms or PTSD. family members are encouraged to talk to the loved one and help them seek treatment. The longer it goes without treatment, the harder addiction will be to treat, especially if it co-occurs alongside mental health issues. The more support family offers, the better they will feel and more connected they will want to become with resources for treatment. 

Growth and Healing

It is hard to love someone with an addiction. It is even harder to see them go downhill and not know how to help. When someone is struggling, they need to come to terms on their own with their lives and journey of healing. It is going to be difficult but they should focus on how to navigate their journey with loved ones behind them. Mental health issues can complicate this so dual diagnosis treatment is often desirable and needed to make sure they can focus on their inner healing with the family support. Community services are also a great support to them on the journey forward from addiction to hope. Whether it is inpatient, outpatient, or sober living programs, a veteran will thrive if their family and loved ones back them up and go to therapy with the healing of the entire family in mind. 

Forge helps Veterans and their families get back on their feet. Our goal is to help Veterans return to life and find ways to achieve their goals with community services and family support.