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Article Summary

Drug Addiction and How it Affects Our Veterans

Although substance abuse and addiction are common among every segment of the population, it seems that veterans as well as people who are on active military duty have higher rates of drug abuse. This is mostly because many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to their experiences in the military.

Further, there are some forms of substance use that are accepted in the military. Heavy alcohol consumption, for instance, is one of the accepted forms among the uniformed forces during recreation, for dealing with stress, as well as for promoting unity and a sense of camaraderie among people in the same unit. It is for this reason that most military installations sell alcohol at a reduced price to people who are in active military duty.

Understanding Military Substance Abuse

Research studies have been showing that combat exposure and military deployment in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq were the primary reason why so many people in the military started drinking heavily. These factors also increased their consumption of alcohol, as well as dangerous habits like binge drinking.

The stress that comes with coping with the various challenges that are experienced by people in the military, as well as the easy availability of these substances all play important roles in increasing the consumption of alcohol among people who are in active military duty.

Additionally, there has been an increase in the abuse of illicit drugs and prescription medications by those who are in the military. Service women and men, for instance, often get prescriptions for pain medications to help them deal with the chronic pain that they are suffering as a result of injuries they sustained during combat. The same is true for veterans.

After veterans are discharged from the military, some of them find that they need to take anti-anxiety medications to help them cope with and overcome the psychological stress that comes with making an adjustment from active military duty to civilian life.

A recent study, for instance, showed that many veterans did not display any hints of substance abuse before they joined the military. However, these same people also developed patterns of substance abuse and addiction during their deployment. This condition also continued after they moved back to civilian life.

Statistics on Drug Addiction Among Veterans

People who have retired from the armed forces are similar to any other civilian in the sense that they are also susceptible to substance abuse and addiction. These people, in fact, have higher rates of drug abuse. This is because they are forced to deal with complex economic and health challenges after serving their country.

The social and psychological stress that they suffer due to experiences of combat, as well as from the demands of military life also tend to trigger addiction and substance use disorders among these people.

Their frequent geographical movements and long deployments often cause them to have strained relationships with their partners, spouses, and loved ones. Further, thousands of veterans end up facing problems like homelessness and unemployment after they leave the military.

To this end, it is not exactly surprising that many of them turn to alcohol and drugs as their go-to resource for dealing with the hardships that arose from their active military duty, as well as from their readjustment to life as civilians.

According to SAMHSA - the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - for instance, it is estimated that more than 7 percent of American veterans struggle with a substance use disorder of one kind or another.

Another study showed that more than 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan also struggle with traumatic brain injury, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. All these conditions have been linked to substance abuse and addiction. They are also responsible - alongside addiction - for the rising number of hospitalizations reported among veterans.

Exposure to extremely painful and psychologically stressful environments also leaves many veterans struggling with other mental health disorders when they return home. Further, the psychological scars left by the traumatic experiences they had, as well as the pain that still lingers from the physical injuries they sustained often drives many of these people towards substances of abuse.

The important thing to keep in mind is that substance abuse and addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and mental illness are common problems that many veterans struggle with.

However, the NCADD - the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence - has reported that the rates of substance abuse among veterans is still lower than the rates reported among civilians.

Consider the following additional facts about drug addiction among veterans:

  • About 20 percent of veterans who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorders proceed to abuse drugs and develop a substance use disorder as a result according to the NCPTSD, the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Close to 20 percent of all female veterans who were in Afghanistan and Iraq have already been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder according to the DVA - the Department of Veteran Affairs
  • More than 25 percent of those who participated in the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns reported that they were struggling with a mental health disorder according to the DHHS - the Department of Health and Human Services
  • More than 7 percent of veterans acquired a SUD - or a substance use disorder - between 2004 and 2006 according to reports by SAMHSA
  • Over 16 percent of all veterans who participated in the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq display the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder according to NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse
  • Over 25 percent of all young veterans between the ages of 18 and 25 reported symptoms of mental health disorders and substance use disorders from 2004 to 2006 according to NIDA

Causes of Military Substance Abuse

But why do veterans have such high rates of substance abuse and addiction? The DVA reports that more than 10 percent of soldiers who are coming back from active military service - especially those who were in Iraq and Afghanistan have various problems linked to alcohol and drugs. The following are some of the reasons behind these trends:

  • Chronic pain as a result of injuries and overuse
  • Combat exposure
  • Difficulties in making the transition from military life to civilian life
  • High rates of mental health conditions
  • High rates of post-traumatic stress disorder
  • History of substance abuse during active military service
  • Inability to acknowledge or recognize the substance abuse problem
  • Inability to cope in healthy ways with stress
  • Reluctance to get help as a result of social stigma
  • The stresses that come with being female military personnel
  • Traumatic brain injuries

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Military Addiction

PTSD, as post-traumatic stress disorder is commonly known, refers to the psychological condition that occurs as a result of witnessing or experiencing deeply stressful and taunting things. Many veterans have, for instance, experienced life-threatening events during their deployment.

Although this condition can occur in just about anyone, it is highly likely to develop as a result of intense and long term trauma, such as that you would typically experience during military duty and combat.

However, there are other factors that could also increase your risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. These factors include social support, additional stressors, gender, and age.

If you are a veteran and you are struggling with PTSD, you might start displaying and experiencing the following symptoms of this mental health disorder or medical condition:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Avoiding places, conversations, and situations that trigger your memories of the traumatic events
  • Despair
  • Difficulties finding employment
  • Distress
  • Excessive drinking, drug taking, and smoking
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Flashbacks
  • Hopelessness
  • Hyperarousal
  • Irritability
  • Jitteriness
  • Lack of concentration
  • Negative feelings
  • Nightmares
  • Reckless driving
  • Relationship problems
  • Reliving the experiences that you went through
  • Shame
  • Sweating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Uncontrollable negative thoughts

Post-traumatic stress disorder is also known as shell shock or combat stress. It results from experiencing life-threatening events and trauma such as when you are in active military duty.

If you are struggling with PTSD, the symptoms of this condition might start surfacing a couple of hours after you experienced the events or as much as several months or even years.

In case this condition is not properly treated and manage, it could cause you to suffer symptoms that last for the rest of your life. Although the severity of these symptoms will wax and wane with time, it is highly likely that they will increase when the anniversary of the traumatic event is approaching.

This condition is one of the main reasons why so many veterans struggle with addiction. This is because substance abuse disorders often go together with mental health conditions like PTSD.

In fact, studies have shown that if you have PTSD, you might be 2 to 4 times as likely to also struggle with substance use disorders and addiction. It is for this reason that more than 27 percent of all veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD also get a diagnosis for addiction.

The relationship between substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder is quite complex. This makes most treatment modalities difficult - and cause some veterans to fail to seek help in the first place.

Life Following Active Military Duty

If you were in the United States army and you get deployed to a war zone, you will always have a high risk of suffering injury, permanent bodily harm, or even death. To this end, you might be happy to go back home to your family and friends. However, it will not always be easy for you to lead a normal life after having been through war.

Making the transition from active military duty to life as a civilian, for instance, will require that you find suitable employment and housing. You will also need to adjust to the lack of the benefits you used to enjoy while in the military, as well as the camaraderie of being part of an unit.

The homecoming theory has been used to understand the various stresses that arise from trying to adjust back to civilian life. As a veteran, you might have already started considering the military as your family. You might also have a sense of unity and belonging with the other members of your unit. This is due to the profound experiences that you shared with them.

As a direct result, normal civilian life will most likely feel a bit alien to you. This is particularly true due to the lack of connection, loss of purpose, and sense of lack of authority and structure.

Some of the challenges that you may encounter while coming back home after having been in the military include but are not limited to:

  • Changed personal and family circumstances due to your absence
  • Debilitating physical and psychological ailments
  • Depression
  • Experiencing criticism of the war you participated in
  • Feeling bored with or alienated from normal civilian life
  • Getting reacquainted and reconnecting with friends and family
  • Mental health conditions
  • Missing unit support and military life
  • PTSD
  • Readjusting to life as a civilian and trying to find employment as one
  • Traumatic brain injury

Problems Arising from Military Drug Addiction

If you are a veteran and you are addicted, there is a high risk that you might also be struggling with some, most, or all of the following problems linked to your ongoing substance abuse:

  • Criminal behavior
  • Homelessness
  • Suicide
  • Unemployment
  • Getting Help

If you have been struggling with addiction and you are a veteran, there are many ways to get help for this condition so that you can take your life from the shell it has become to what it once was - or even better.

You will have to check into an addiction treatment and rehabilitation program - particularly one that mostly deals with veterans and people who are on or were in active military duty. Through this program, you might be able to overcome your addiction and manage any other medical and mental health disorders that you might also be struggling with.

CITATIONS

http://dok.slso.sll.se/CPF/journal_clubs/j.1360-0443.1993.tb02123.x.pdf

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.01301009.x

https://nvf.org/veteran-substance-abuse-statistics/

https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/military

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5587184/

https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/substance_abuse_vet.asp

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306460302002162

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