Why People Who Serve in the Military Are at Increased Risk for Mental Health and Addiction Challenges

Military service is challenging enough, but add in addiction or mental health challenges and it can feel quite complex. Active-duty and veteran service members are in different categories due to their level of service. Health care trends demonstrate they both are in need of additional support for the increased risks they face of mental health and addiction. The impact of military service on professionals who are struggling with these issues means it is necessary to dive deeper into why they struggle with mental health and addiction challenges while also considering ways to best support them in recovery. 

Influences and Service

Deployment to combat zones is one of the biggest influences on how a person experiences mental health and addiction. Individuals who go into combat zones in conflict areas have higher rates of diagnoses than people who do not serve in the military. This goes for those who serve locally but not in combat zones, as well. Nearly half of those returning from deployment struggle with transition due to substance abuse behaviors or mental health challenges. Post-deployment increases in substance abuse problems arise for those in both Reserve and National Guard personnel. In spite of higher rates of abuse, deployed personnel may not receive the necessary services for many reasons. One of these is the stigma around getting help or fear of being kicked out of the service. Other cultural factors include:

  • Inexpensive alcohol is available on some bases, contributing to drinking behaviors like binge drinking
  • Workplace culture means they may be deployed for long periods of time away from loved ones and in stressful situations day after day
  • Increased prescription pain medication is available for those who need it and people may take it as prescribed or others can find and share it with others. Combat-related injuries are part of this, but some may take it because they were already addicted or became so during their service

Traumatic Events

Part of what shapes people’s experiences in the military, unfortunately, are stressful scenarios. They may see things in combat zones they are not going to forget. This means their brains will experience trauma. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that occurs following exposure to a stressful event. These experiences keep re-occurring. Hyper-arousal and negative responses are not uncommon. The most common co-occurrence of PTSD and substance use disorders is well-established. Military populations may have a higher rate of comorbidity among PTSD and SUD than the general population. Many people who seek treatment for drinking also meet criteria for PTSD, particularly veterans, with those who returned from recent deployment being most susceptible. The combination of PTSD and alcohol use disorder can significantly impact mental health. It may be that people drink as a result of negative emotions and memories. However a person begins to use substances, the rates are much higher for multiple deployments, with trauma being compounded and the risk of injuries increasing with each deployment.

Increased Use of Prescription Pain Medication

Veterans and military personnel often experience an increase in prescriptions for pain medication. The rate of PTSD and opiate use disorder among veterans is increasing along with other people in the general population. While there is an adverse risk for veterans who receive prescription medication, the results were more extreme for veterans with a co-occurring diagnosis of PTSD. This means, ultimately, people who serve in the military can often suffer compound trauma, PTSD, and other health issues that result in using substances to help them cope at higher rates than others. The question is how to support them in finding the right help in achieving recovery goals. 

Prevention and Treatment

It is very hard to prevent drug and substance abuse for military personnel who have suffered trauma as a result of service. Whether mental, physical, or both, there is likely to be some ramifications from their active duty overseas. Efforts to reduce stigma are gaining traction so there is less likelihood of them feeling afraid of losing status or active duty assignments as a result of seeking help for addiction and mental health challenges. The high prevalence of substance use disorders with co-occurring PTSD has led to research that looks at integrated, holistic treatment options in recovery. Interventions need to focus on a multidimensional approach that looks at mind, body and spiritual approaches to helping veterans find hope and healing in recovery while addressing the trauma they’ve faced. This special population is best served, oftentimes, with other veterans and military personnel who understand what they faced, and continue to face, on the road to recovery.

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