Why Veterans Struggle with Substance Use After Transition from Active Duty

Veterans deal with stress daily while in active duty but may also struggle upon return home. Mental illness, physical health complications, and injuries can complicate their lives even further. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers treatment plans for veterans, but not everyone accesses those programs. They may struggle to deal with substance abuse as a way to cope with the transition from active duty back home again. Many veterans deal with combat zone-related PTSD and illnesses that put them at higher risk of substance use. Veterans treated for substance use disorders often struggle to ask for help. Find out more about this issue and how to support a loved one.

Alcohol Abuse

Consumption of alcohol is not uncommon in the military. Drinking can happen socially, with peers, or just to build a connection between troops and their commanders while on the field. The stress of deployment can create a toxic environment for some who self-medicate to cope with mental health issues. Leisurely drinking can lead to overconsumption due to peer pressure or feeling like it takes away the stress they feel, so they continue using it.

Illegal Drugs

Heroin and opium were popular drugs with service members. The youthful inexperience of soldiers and the horrors of the Vietnam War, for instance, created a perfect storm for those who became dependent on using drugs to cope. Illicit drug use in the military has been on the decline since enforcement of random drug testing policies. Still, military personnel often use illegal substances to cope with the transition back home. This time is often turbulent and challenging to navigate without support for underlying causes. 

Post-Military Drug Use

Adjusting to a different normal is hard for veterans. A small percentage of veterans use substances, but the numbers are still too high. Often, service members come back from combat zones with many problems, including PTSD, depression, or traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). A portion of service members misuses pain relievers, leading to addiction. 

Prescription Medicine

Prescription drugs are misused by veterans because they need them initially to deal with pain and injuries. Mental health and physical pain often combine to make the pain level intolerable without the use of substances. Benzodiazepines and opioids are two popular drugs they use to cope. While they may not intend to use more than necessary, their brains and bodies become dependent. Once dependence sets in, they are no longer able to deal with the resulting addiction issues. Users of prescription painkillers are three times more likely to misuse prescription opioids than those without prescription, mostly due to access. 

PTSD and Addiction

PTSD and brain injuries are difficult to manage for veterans. They come back from combat to life that is different and has, in many ways, moved on without them. Their kids have grown, their wives have changed and learned to deal with being a single parent while the soldier was away. The coping mechanisms often turn into an addiction. People who use drugs and alcohol before a diagnosis of PTSD often continue using. Still, a majority of people with PTSD start after the injury because it is a way to cope with the pain and flashbacks. However, few seek the treatment necessary to help them cope with addiction and enter recovery. 

Risk of Drug Use

In civilian life, there are no guarantees. Life is different, and, for those injured, it continues to be a struggle. They face higher rates of incarceration, homelessness, mental health issues that go untreated, and difficulty integrating into society. They might struggle with social reintegration back to life as it was before they left. Veterans who use substances cause stress for loved ones and are not able to manage their lives effectively unless they get treatment. Their risk of overdose also goes up, along with relapse. The longer they go without treatment, the harder it is to help them. The goal is to support their needs where they are at and offer as much support as possible to get them to agree treatment is a good option. 

Treatment Considerations

Treatment is critical for veterans returning home. They have spouses, partners, loved ones, kids, and others who care about them. They also want them to care about taking care of their needs, but they come home quite often with needs of their own. Ordinary life is thrown out the window. They need support in treatment to thrive. If they reach out, they can get medication-assisted treatment, therapy, and family therapy to help give them a hand up. Addiction is not curable. A person with addiction who served in the military often needs dual diagnosis support, long-term aftercare planning, and physical therapy or occupational therapy to help with injuries. Screening is vital to identify all the ways a person with addiction needs help and to draft an individualized treatment plan that meets their goals. Once they get treatment, they are often able to transition home and find a new routine that works for them. There is no perfect solution. Nobody is going to come home without any issues at all, but they can develop a plan to continue working and find support in community groups, with loved ones, and a good self-care plan for the long journey ahead. 

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