Jul 6, 2023

Substance Abuse Among Veterans: Supporting Our Heroes

The issue of substance abuse among veterans is significant. It requires our attention and understanding. Many of our heroes return from service carrying invisible scars that manifest as substance use disorders (SUDs). The battle against SUDs is complex, involving not only the individual but also the systems and communities around them.

In this comprehensive guide, we will navigate through the landscape of substance abuse in veterans, discussing treatment options, support groups, policy issues, crisis management strategies, and ways you can help.

The military is an institution that demands physical rigidity, mental fortitude, and emotional resilience. But the harsh realities of war and service can leave deep-seated psychological wounds, which often find expression in the form of problematic substance use.

According to a 2017 study examining data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, veterans were found to be more likely to use alcohol than their non-veteran counterparts (56.6% vs. 50.8%) within a one-month period. Furthermore, over half of veterans entering a treatment program reported alcohol as their most frequently misused substance, nearly double that of the general population.

Understanding Substance Abuse Among Veterans

Military service exposes individuals to unique stressors and traumas — combat exposure, loss of comrades, displacement from family, and familiar surroundings, to name a few. These experiences can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues closely linked with substance abuse. It’s a coping mechanism, albeit a harmful one. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) highlights four dimensions that support a life in recovery: health, home, purpose, and community. These dimensions provide a holistic frame of reference for understanding and treating SUDs.

The Impact of PTSD and Trauma on Substance Abuse in Veterans

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma significantly impact substance abuse among veterans. The co-occurrence of PTSD and SUDs in veterans is high due to the intense stress and trauma associated with military service. PTSD can produce symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, and severe anxiety that veterans may try to self-manage or numb with drugs or alcohol. This creates a vicious cycle of substance abuse and mental health problems that can further exacerbate each condition.

Systemic Factors Contributing to Substance Abuse Among Veterans

While personal experiences and mental health play significant roles in substance abuse among veterans, systemic factors cannot be ignored. For instance, access to quality healthcare, especially for rural veterans, can be a significant hurdle. The stigma around mental health and substance use, a lack of confidentiality, and fear of negative repercussions can also deter veterans from seeking help. Furthermore, insurance coverage gaps and limited treatment options compound these systemic barriers.

Substance Abuse Treatments for Veterans

Despite these challenges, there is hope. Various interventions and services specifically designed to support veterans struggling with SUDs offer hope during tough times.

Rehabilitation Programs for Veterans

Rehab programs can be critical for veterans dealing with substance use issues. These programs are often tailored to address veterans’ unique needs and experiences, integrating treatments for SUDs and mental health issues.

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment offers a structured treatment environment with 24/7 medical and psychological support. This type of treatment can be particularly beneficial for veterans dealing with severe SUDs or those who have tried other forms of treatment without success.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment allows veterans to continue living at home or in sober living while receiving regular therapy and medical care. This form of treatment provides greater flexibility and is typically best suited for those with milder SUDs or those with strong support systems at home.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) combines behavioral therapy with medications to treat SUDs. We use medications like naltrexone for alcohol abuse and buprenorphine and naltrexone for opioid use disorders. These medications can help manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings, reducing the likelihood of relapse.

Therapies for Veterans with Co-Occurring Disorders

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is often applied in the treatment of SUDs and co-occurring disorders. CBT helps veterans recognize and alter maladaptive behaviors related to their substance use. It also equips them with coping skills to deal with risky situations and prevent relapse.

Support Groups for Substance-Abusing Veterans

Support groups can be invaluable resources for veterans. These groups provide a sense of community and shared experience that can significantly aid recovery. Additionally, they are free of charge and readily available in most cities.

Benefits of Support Groups

Support groups offer peer support, understanding, and shared experiences, which can be powerful tools in recovery. They offer a safe space where veterans can share their struggles, learn from other’s experiences, and gain practical advice and encouragement. Moreover, support groups reinforce the fact that recovery is a journey, and no one has to travel it alone.

Types of Support Groups Available for Veterans

Several types of support groups specifically tailored for veterans include Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and SMART Recovery. There are also support groups for families of veterans struggling with SUDs, such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon.

Finding and Joining a Support Group

Joining a support group can be as simple as showing up to a meeting. Most groups have open meetings where anyone can attend. You can find local groups through online directories, healthcare providers, or veteran service organizations. Remember, trying out different groups is okay until you find one that feels right for you.

Addressing Policy and Systemic Issues

While individual-level interventions are critical, addressing larger systemic issues is equally important. Policies and practices need to change to increase access to care, reduce stigma, and improve outcomes for veterans with substance abuse issues.

Challenges in Accessing Treatment for Veterans

Accessing treatment can be a significant challenge for veterans, particularly those in rural areas or without access to qualified providers. The VA Medical Centers (VAMC) provide SUD treatment services, but many veterans are not connected to a local VAMC or face difficulties in accessing care. This highlights the need for increased resources, improved infrastructure, and expanded telehealth services to reach veterans in underserved areas.

Advocacy for Improved Policies and Resources

Advocacy plays a crucial role in improving policies and resources for veterans with substance abuse issues. By raising awareness, contacting legislators, and supporting organizations that advocate for veterans’ rights and access to care, we can drive positive change and ensure that our heroes receive the support they deserve.

Supporting Legislation and Initiatives for Veterans

Several legislative acts and initiatives have been established to address the needs of veterans with substance abuse issues. Examples include the Opioid Safety Initiative and the revision of clinical practice guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain by the VHA. Supporting and staying informed about these initiatives can help create a more supportive environment for veterans seeking treatment.

Strategies for Crisis Management

Recognizing and addressing crises is crucial when it comes to helping veterans with substance abuse issues. It is important to be aware of warning signs and red flags, intervene when necessary, and provide access to crisis hotlines and helplines.

Identifying Warning Signs and Red Flags

Warning signs and red flags can include changes in behavior, increased substance use, social isolation, and expressions of hopelessness or suicidal ideation. It is essential to be vigilant and proactive in reaching out to veterans who may be in crisis.

Interventions for Veterans with Substance Abuse Issues

Intervening compassionately and non-judgmentally is crucial when helping veterans with substance abuse issues. Encouraging them to seek professional help, offering support and understanding, and connecting them with resources can make a significant difference in their recovery journey.

Crisis Hotlines and Helplines for Veterans

Several crisis hotlines and helplines are available specifically for veterans, providing immediate support and guidance. These resources, such as the Veterans Crisis Line, ensure that veterans have access to help whenever they need it most. You can reach them by texting 838255.

Ways to Help Veterans with Substance Abuse Issues

Supporting veterans with substance abuse issues goes beyond individual interventions. Here are some ways you can make a difference:

Educating Yourself and Others

Education is essential in breaking down stigma and increasing understanding of substance abuse among veterans. Take the time to educate yourself about the challenges veterans face, the impact of trauma, and the available resources. Share this knowledge with others to promote empathy and support.

Volunteering and Supporting Organizations

Volunteering your time and skills to organizations that support veterans with substance abuse issues can have a profound impact. Whether it’s assisting with treatment programs, advocating for policy changes, or mentoring veterans in recovery, your contribution can make a difference in their lives.

Assisting with Reintegration and Employment Opportunities

Reintegrating into civilian life can be challenging for veterans, especially those struggling with substance abuse issues. Providing assistance with job placement, vocational training, and creating supportive environments in the workplace can help veterans rebuild their lives and maintain their recovery.

Standing Together: Helping Our Veterans

Substance abuse in veterans is a problem we all need to address. At the Massachusetts Center for Addiction, we’re dedicated to helping our veterans, ensuring they don’t fight this battle alone.

Understanding substance abuse in veterans is essential. It means recognizing the difficulties they face and working to improve things like healthcare access, supportive policies, and resources. By doing this, we’re helping create a future where no veteran struggles alone.

We’re committed to helping our heroes. Let’s unite, and ensure they get the care they deserve. When we work together, we can make a big difference.

MCA Staff
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MCA Staff

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