Without the sacrifices made by veterans we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the liberties we take for granted every day. The fact that we can speak freely and bear arms is just one result of these sacrifices. Unfortunately, many veterans experience traumatic events while serving our country. As a result many have turned to substance abuse to help them cope with physical and mental trauma.
Why is substance abuse amongst veterans so common?
The entire country is facing a substance abuse epidemic. However, veterans seem to be particularly susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse. One of the main reasons veterans are struggling with this issue is that the transition back to civilian life isn’t easy. Other issues include struggles with mental health as well as chronic pain.
With substance abuse so widespread in our society there are many programs explicitly designed to help veterans who struggle with this problem. Through all the trauma and pain it may seem like recovery is impossible, but with the right type of treatment and support from various counselors, groups, as well as friends and family members veterans can overcome their addictions and transition back to normal civilian life.
Substance abuse while transitioning back to civilian life
During their time in the military veterans were required to live highly structured lives where rank and title meant everything. In civilian life, these titles and ranks aren’t as clearly defined. Thus it can be difficult to transition to a traditional job.
Those who struggle the most tend to be the veterans who have experienced combat. Combat zones are highly dynamic places where one’s life is constantly at risk at all times. When a veteran attempts to transition from such a highly dynamic environment back to “normal” life the sudden change in environment can be challenging to cope with.
One challenge that many people don’t think about is the fact that veterans are often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices in their everyday lives. In the military, practically every aspect of their lives was regulated. In civilian life that regulation is gone.
Suddenly being hit with the stress of civilian life can be challenging. Veterans face a very real possibility of losing their identity as well as the potential for being unemployed. All of these stressors often culminate into substance abuse.
The most common substance abused by veterans and active duty service members is alcohol. Alcohol often allows people to cope with the difficult issues they face while on duty. This is worsened when veterans transition back to everyday life and are forced to make many difficult life changes. The future is often uncertain which causes undue stress.
Treating someone who has developed a dependency on alcohol can prove to be very challenging. This is why prevention is the best way to combat alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse amongst veterans. One way to go about doing this is ensuring that service members who are transitioning back to civilian life have the tools they need to move forward as easily as possible.
Those already dealing with an alcohol abuse problem should turn to any number of resources to help them overcome their addiction such as VA alcohol rehabs and other private treatment centers.
Veteran substance abuse and chronic pain
The American people are all too familiar with the rigors of chronic pain. As many as 30% of Americans suffer from varying levels of chronic pain. This percentage skyrockets for veterans. In many cases more than 50% of veterans who return from active duty deal with chronic pain related issues.
Of course, veterans experience chronic pain at much higher levels than the general population due to the extreme conditions they face while serving in active duty. In recent years many veterans have turned to opioids to help them overcome their chronic pain.
You can think of opioids as extra strength prescription painkillers. Opioids are incredibly effective in treating various conditions such as surgery recovery, back pain, and other similar injuries. When used as directed opioids offer relief for those who are struggling with chronic pain.
Unfortunately, opioids are often addictive which is the most likely culprit behind the high rates of veteran addiction. Even though organizations such as the VA have taken notice of the issue there are still an alarmingly high rate of veterans who become addicted to opioids every year.
While opioids and similar medications can be useful when used as directed, there are alternatives to long-term pain management. Some VA centers have taken a more holistic approach to treat long-term pain by incorporating alternative treatments such as physical therapy, acupuncture, and mindfulness. These practices have been proven to be effective and have begun to spread to many treatment centers across the country.
Individuals already addicted to opioids are facing an uphill battle. Veterans are twice as likely to overdose on opioids than the general population. Despite these grim numbers, there’s always hope. There are many VA drug rehab programs spread throughout the country that is dedicated to helping veterans get their lives back on track as they break away from the grip of addiction.
Substance abuse in veterans and PTSD
If you’re a civilian that has never served time in the military, you may never understand the range of emotions a veteran may be experiencing as they transition back to civilian life. Some veterans are lucky enough to suffer only minor injuries and minimal psychological stress during combat. However, others are heavily scarred both physically and mentally.
Thousands of soldiers come home and are soon after diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is a mental health issue that’s often brought about by the highly traumatic stress experienced during combat. PTSD is also another major contributing factor to veterans who turn to substance abuse. Veterans attempt to “self-medicate” to lessen the symptoms of their disorder. However, more often than not many veterans end up worsening their symptoms rather than relieving them.
PTSD and substance abuse are a potent and deadly combo. Given enough time, a veteran who deals with these issues may end up overdosing on illicit substances and killing themselves. If you have PTSD, you should reach out for help. You don’t need drugs and alcohol to help you treat your condition. With the right type of medical attention, you can battle both your PTSD and your substance abuse addiction, allowing you to more easily transition back to civilian life and lead a normal lifestyle.
People living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD isn’t just a condition that veterans deal with. Anyone who has experienced massive trauma can develop PTSD. For example, events such as a natural disaster, sexual violence, a severe accident, and combat can cause someone to develop PTSD.
Living with PTSD is not easy by any measure. Those who suffer from this condition must live their life plagued by the traumatic event as it plays out in their heads over and over again. This often leads to paranoid behavior and severe anxiety. Almost anything can trigger an anxiety attack which causes many people who suffer from PTSD to seclude themselves from society. Unfortunately, family and friends are also shunned away so that the individual can suffer in solitude.
Signs and symptoms associated with PTSD:
- Reliving the traumatic experience
- Suicidal thoughts
- Engaging in self-destructive behaviors (such as substance abuse)
- Experiencing intense feelings of anxiety
- Sudden bouts of anger
As mentioned earlier, PTSD can affect anyone. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what religion you follow, your sex or any other factor you can think of — no one is immune to the ravishes of this mental disease. In fact, approximately 8% of the U.S. population suffers from PTSD.
Those who are the most susceptible at developing PTSD are the ones who experience traumatic events on a regular basis such as policemen, firefighters and of course soldiers.
Is PTSD common among veterans
We already know that anyone who experiences a highly traumatic event can develop PTSD. Veterans are far more likely to develop PTSD than any other segment of the population due to exposure to combat. Sometimes even lack of combat can be traumatic — it can be difficult to be calm when you have no clue where the next bullet is coming from.
Sexual assault in the military is also another huge contributing factor to veteran PTSD, especially in female members. It has been reported that 23 out of 100 women who use VVA care have been sexually assaulted during their time in the military.
Until relatively recently, the military never took PTSD seriously. Soldiers who showed symptoms of PTSD were seen as having a weak character causing many veterans to hide their condition as a result.
Sadly, there are still veterans who do not report their PTSD because they don’t want to be seen as “soft” or weak. This may contribute to the tragically high suicide rates of veterans in the United States. Often, many of the veterans who committed suicide were not utilizing the services offered by the VA which could have identified their PTSD and offered counseling amongst other treatments for their condition.
Why veterans with PTSD are more likely to suffer from substance use disorder
Dealing with flashbacks of traumatic events and anxiety brought on by PTSD can be draining both physically and emotionally. Numbing the pain with drugs and alcohol is often the only way that many veterans attempt to cope with their problems.
Sadly, those who have sustained physical injuries are at an even higher risk of becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol. It often starts with a few pills to deal with the pain, but as time goes on dependence on the medication begins to develop until eventually the patient has become completely addicted. This is made even worse if the individual is suffering from PTSD.
Worse yet, drugs and alcohol often make the side effects of PTSD much worse over time. Dealing with an instance of co-occurring substance abuse and PTSD can significantly chip away at a veteran’s personal life. Over time their relationships with their friends and family begin to corrode away. Those who abuse harmful substances often don’t see how drugs and alcohol are harming them.
Unchecked substance abused coupled with PTSD can lead to a variety of complications that include:
- Increased stress
- A desire to be alone (pushing away friends and family)
- Trouble concentrating
Finding help for veterans who struggle with PTSD and substance abuse
There’s no shame in seeking professional help if you’re dealing with issues pertaining to PTSD and substance abuse. Simply ignoring the condition only makes it worse even if you’re not abusing drugs and alcohol. Utilizing the services of a dedicated medical staff as well as professional counselors should help you overcome your addiction and allow you to live a life free of substance abuse.
Which substances do veterans misuse the most often?
Military life is often hard and filled with pain, suffering and traumatic events. Doctor offices are often flooded with veterans who seek medication to help them numb the pain both physically and emotionally. We already know that many veterans often turn to illegal drugs and alcohol to help them find solace from their pain.
However, there are a large variety of prescription medications that if misused can be detrimental to the patient. Take the painkiller Vicodin for example. Vicodin is often prescribed when a patient is suffering from a physical injury.
There’s also the sedative Lunesta that’s often prescribed to someone who may be dealing with insomnia. While Vicodin and Lunesta are effective when used correctly if they’re abused they can be potentially addictive. This is why taking your medication as prescribed is important. Unfortunately, many veterans don’t follow the instructions of their prescription. They simply take the medication when they feel discomfort. While this is understandable, these are often the first steps down the road of substance abuse and addiction.
Alcohol abuse among veterans
Alcohol often sits at the root of most addictions often acting as a gateway to other substances. Alcohol acts as both a stimulant and a depressant; its effects intensifying the more that is consumed.
When only small amounts of alcohol are consumed, it acts as a stimulant. At this point, individuals begin to experience feelings of euphoria. To intensify this feel-good feeling people tend to drink even more. There’s certainly nothing wrong with drinking in moderation. However, pacing yourself is key.
Alcohol begins to act as a depressant when large amounts are consumed. When this occurs, the electrical activity in the brain begins to decrease which can lead to side effects such as slowed movements, slurred speech, belligerent behavior, poor balance, drowsiness, and even respiratory depression.
Binge drinking can be especially dangerous. Binge drinking occurs when an individual consumes more than five alcoholic beverages in a short time span. Soldiers who have been exposed to combat tend to be the most susceptible to binge drinking.
As previously mentioned alcohol is often used to suppress the symptoms of PTSD. Ignoring veterans who have a drinking problem is a grave mistake. Not only does alcohol negatively impact the user, but it also affects their friends, family, and coworkers.
Opioid (Painkiller) abuse among veterans
Injury amongst veterans is astronomically high. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are hundreds of thousands of disabled veterans within the United States. Injuries range from chronic back pain to severe headaches to severed limbs. With so many veterans suffering from such a wide range of disabilities opioids have often been the go-to answer for many doctors to provide immediate pain relief for their patients.
Opioids are synthetic (manmade) substances that originate from opiates, often used as painkillers. Though the original use of opioids was for pain treatment an increasing number of people began to misuse the substance. Over time the number of deaths due to opioid-related overdoses began to add up.
There are many brands of opioids available for use. The most prominent being Oxycontin, Lortab, and Vicodin. As with any of the substances we’ve talked about thus far they can be successfully used to treat pain when used in moderation. However, when they are abused, they become potentially addictive. Because veterans deal with more pain than your average citizen, they are the most susceptible to becoming addicted to opioids because they will often use more than the prescribed amount to treat their pain.
Many veterans begin their opioid addiction right on the battlefield. There have been instances where injured troops are given opioids right in the field to numb their pain. At that point service members are directed to take even more drugs to deal with the side effects of the opioids. Over time soldiers grow dependent on the pain numbing effects of opioids as a way to continue pushing forward while out in the field. Sadly, that dependence often carries over into their civilian life.
Anti-anxiety medication and sedative misuse amongst veterans
Anxiety and insomnia are very real issues that thousands of veterans deal with every day. Sedatives and benzodiazepines are the most common prescription for veterans to combat these issues.
Benzodiazepines AKA “benzos” are a popular psychoactive drug that directly affects GABA receptors, which reduce activity in the brain. Benzos are commonly used to treat panic disorders, seizures, anxiety and other similar disorders. The most popular benzodiazepines include Valium and Xanax.
On the other hand, sedatives such as Lunesta and Ambien are used to help veterans who deal with insomnia. These medications are most commonly known as “hypnotics,” and they affect the unbalanced brain chemicals that are common in people who suffer from sleep disorders. These medications calm the patient by reducing irritability or excitement when used to treat anxiety. When used in higher concentrations they can induce sleep within a patient.
What may come as a surprise to many people is that sedatives and benzos should not be used to treat PTSD. While the side effects may sound beneficial, there isn’t enough data to prove that these medications won’t have a negative impact on the side effects of PTSD.
Despite this, doctors still prescribe these medications to veterans who suffer from this mental disease with great regularity. Thousands of veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD are currently taking benzos through a prescription. However, with insufficient data and even possible health risks, there’s no surprise that addiction has set in with many veterans who use these medications.
If you’re a veteran and you struggle with substance abuse to treat PTSD or chronic pain, it’s imperative that you get help as soon as you can. Your condition will only grow worse as time goes on and there’s no shame in reaching out for help.
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