Sunday, November 11 is Veterans Day. Veterans Day is a time to pay respect to those who have served our country and reflect upon the sacrifices they have made. We celebrate Veterans Day to recognize and honor veterans for their patriotism and willingness to serve the American people.
We can also use Veterans Day as a time to focus on the issues that plague our veterans and work to provide the best possible solutions. The demands of military life and combat often leave veterans experiencing a slew of mental health issues. As we know, mental health and addiction are closely linked, which makes veterans particularly vulnerable to the development of substance use disorders.
How Common is Veteran Substance Abuse?
There are several different reasons why substance abuse is so common among veterans. Many service members have been faced with a series of tough and traumatic experiences while deployed, and have returned home with psychological or physical scars- and in some cases both. In an attempt to self-medicate, they turn to alcohol or drugs to relieve their symptoms.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administrations, only about half of the returning service members who need mental health treatment seek it, and only about half of those individuals receive proper care. The same source states that in 2015, 1 in 15 veterans had a substance use disorder in the past year.
Veterans and PTSD
Post-Traumatic stress disorder is a mental health disorder that can occur after experiencing a traumatic event. Veterans are especially susceptible to PTSD due to the challenges of combat. During a traumatic event, the individual feels like his or her life is threatened. They may feel afraid or like they have no control over what is occurring. The event could also endanger the life of others. Some of these events include:
- Combat exposure
- Sexual or physical abuse
- Terrorist attacks
- Serious accidents
- Natural disasters
Events like these can leave veterans feeling helpless, confused, angry, and scared. These feelings may worsen or grow more severe, leading them to disrupt a person’s daily life. Veterans who suffer from PTSD have survived an event that has caused them to experience or witness something horrible. The strong emotions that follow the event create changes within the brain. PTSD symptoms may improve, but about 1 of 3 with PTSD have continued symptoms. Symptoms of PTSD include:
- Avoiding situations, locations, or people that trigger memories of the event
- Experiencing flashbacks and reliving the event
- Feelings of numbness
- Feeling jittery, extra alert, on the lookout for danger
These symptoms often result in other symptoms that result in trouble sleeping, employment issues, difficulty maintaining relationships, self-destructive behavior, and drinking or drug problems.
PTSD and Substance Abuse Issues
According to American Addiction Centers, about 50-66 percent of those who suffer from PTSD also simultaneously battle addiction. The relationship between substance abuse and PTSD is complex, but there is a definite connection. The high levels of stress caused by PTSD increase the chances that the person will turn to drugs or alcohol as an escape. Substances like drugs or alcohol can increase feelings of pleasure, decrease anxiety, and provide a distraction from difficult emotions.
Alcohol and drugs may temporarily relieve symptoms of PTSD, but as they wear off the symptoms worsen. Drinking or doing drugs also interferes with decision-making abilities and increases risky behavior. This increases the chances of the individual becoming a victim of crime or accident, which in turn, increase the chances of developing PTSD.
Treatment for Veterans
Considering the traumatic situations that veterans often face, it’s no surprise that they are more likely to battle substance abuse as a way of coping. Along with the risk of physical injury, mental health issues can leave soldiers with severe psychological damage. Luckily, there are a number of resources for veterans to receive treatment for both mental health and substance abuse disorders.
When PTSD and addiction simultaneously occur, it is referred to as co-occurring disorders. It is important to treat both disorders simultaneously and in an individualized way. In additional to traditional inpatient and outpatient treatment centers, veterans have an option to seek out additional therapy methods such as:
This Veterans Day, take the time to recognize and acknowledge those who have served our country. We also must educate ourselves on the increase of substance abuse that affects our country’s veterans and work to make treatment accessible for all. If you’re a veteran struggling with substance abuse or addiction, find help now.