What is the Impact of Substance Use Disorder on Military Families and Spouses?

Veterans may go into combat zones and come back different than when they left. They suffer from mental health issues, combat injuries, TBIs, and more. To cope with these chronic, debilitating conditions, they sometimes turn to substances. Substance use disorder (SUD) is more common for veterans than civilians because of the impact trauma and combat have on their brains and bodies. Spouses and families are left to deal with the fallout, struggling to understand how the loved one is impacted and ways to navigate their journey of healing.

Family Journey

Once a loved one returns from combat, stress and anxiety can build. Stressors they experience often have to do with realigning themselves with a different reality. They are not in a combat zone any longer. They are living and working from home, in a safer space than they left behind. However, they come back with memories of war, trauma, and thoughts of what they witnessed in combat. Families often experience the journey alongside them, trying to cope the best they can while supporting the loved one in getting help. This often results in caregiver stress such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Worry
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Feelings of guilt and shame

Substance use is more common for veterans when they return home due to the struggles they face reintegrating and working through the challenges of trauma. They may not be willing to seek help or are in denial of their issues. Spouses, children, and siblings of service members can struggle alongside them. Behavioral changes can come with TBIs or PTSD. with these issues, families may not realize they need support they cannot give. It is important to know how and when to offer help to them in the midst of the challenges they face.

Spouses and Partners of Veterans

Partners of military veterans with PTSD and co-occurring substance use disorders tend to experience stress alongside them and in their relationship. The lower satisfaction they can experience in relationships with returned veterans often comes from challenges with connecting emotionally and intimately with someone who has been gone a long time. Deployments often last awhile and they only see each other over the computer or talk on the phone. They may go through multiple deployments while they are in the service. It is hard to relearn how to communicate with the partner without some help, not to mention cope with existing mental health issues they may come home with. 

Children of Service Members

When children are exposed to substance use or mental health issues in parents, they often take on a new and unique role with that parent or within the family. They may display similar symptoms of the issues their parents have or take on caretaking roles at an early age. Academic problems at school may occur, along with anxiety and stress over their parent’s situation. If the child remembers the parent before they left, they may miss the parent and want to have the ‘old mom or dad’ back. This can result in behavior like acting out, aggression, or anxiety and depression. Children whose parents use substances are less likely to receive other types of care like medical or dental. They may struggle with mental health issues down the road themselves. 

How Families Can Help

The best way families can help loved ones who return from a tour of duty is to find out what their diagnosis is from the doctors. Stay informed about their condition and educate themselves about PTSD, TBIs, and other mental health conditions. Offer to support them by going to doctor’s visits and listening when they need help. It helps to plan a relaxing time together, enjoying walks, or going to see a movie. When a person can encourage them to spend time with their children or close friends, it helps to build that support for the journey of recovery. Treatment for their condition often looks like:

  • Group therapy
  • Individual therapy
  • Couples counseling
  • Training in anger and stress management skills or counseling
  • Family therapy with children included
  • Specialized treatment programs for substance use disorders that offer treatment for veterans with co-occurring disorders

Self-Care for Families

When military wives and family members are walking the journey of addiction recovery with a loved one, they often are struggling with many challenges all at once. The issues they face make it harder to heal if they are not in a supportive community. The military can be a difficult place to face addiction because there is still stigma around addiction. To combat this, families can work on their self-care process and find hope on the other side of the difficult times. Once a loved one has identified the right treatment program, it is important to journey as a family through therapy, working together to grow in awareness of addictive habits, behaviors, and needs for the person with addiction, the spouse, and children. Self-care is crucial throughout this process. Burnout is very real for caretakers of loved ones with brain trauma, mental health conditions, and substance use disorder. These are complex conditions but, with support and treatment, it is possible to find healing and hope on the journey together as a family. Treatment designed specifically for veterans is the best way to find support for their unique needs and for the entire family as a whole. 

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