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Active Duty Military, Veterans and Substance Abuse

Military personnel often face horrifying situations, including the threat of death, or other physical or mental harm. The trauma associated with these experiences leads some service members to use alcohol or drugs to manage their emotions and trauma.

A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) looked at the physical and mental health of soldiers returning from active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. The researchers found the mental health of soldiers to be “significantly worse compared with the general population.” The study also found “13.9% screened positive for probable post-traumatic stress disorder, 39% for probable alcohol abuse, and 3% for probable drug abuse.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) warns that those who have been deployed more than once, have seen active combat and have received related injuries have the highest risk for developing a substance abuse problem. According to NIDA, “they are more apt to engage in new-onset heavy weekly drinking and binge drinking, to suffer alcohol and drug-related problems…they risk addiction to opioid pain medicines prescribed after an injury.”

According to the National Veterans Foundation, “veteran substance abuse is a growing problem in the USA. As military members return from deployment suffering from physical and mental health problems and disabilities due to their experiences while deployed, substance abuse becomes more prevalent.”

What is Substance Use Disorder?

A medical professional often diagnoses a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) when a patient’s use of alcohol or drugs adversely impacts their health, home, work, school or other aspects of their lives. SUD is a medical condition in which a patient’s use of one or more substances, including drugs and/or alcohol, causes harm to themselves and those around them. People struggling with a SUD often engage in risky behavior, fail to meet their personal responsibilities and experience social and interpersonal relationship issues.

Substance use disorder can encompass many different types of substances, including opioid painkillers or heroin, depressants like alcohol, benzodiazepines or barbiturates, stimulants like cocaine or amphetamines or psychoactive drugs like marijuana, LSD or PCP.

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Symptoms of Substance Use Disorder

Whether a person abuses a legal or illegal drug, their usage affects their brain and body, causing mental and physical impairment. It is also common for those with SUD to have such co-occurring disorders as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or other serious conditions.

Symptoms of a SUD may include:

  • Needing more of substance to achieve desired effect, known as tolerance
  • Obsessive thoughts about the substance, including cravings
  • Unable to stop using substance despite negative consequences
  • Withdrawal symptoms if substance is not taken
  • Engaging in risky behavior when under influence
  • Intense cravings for substance
  • Financial problems related to purchase of substance, or loss of job
  • Legal problems related to substance use habit
  • Disregarding responsibilities
  • Withdrawing from social or other activities they once enjoyed

Co-occurring Disorders

When a person experiences a mental illness and a substance use disorder simultaneously, they are suffering from a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. According to a 2018 article published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, “Alcohol use disorder (AUD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are among the most prevalent disorders in U.S. military veterans and often co-occur.” Individuals suffering from co-occurring AUD and PTSD are more likely to also have chronic health conditions, as well as higher rates of suicide attempts, violence, depression, legal problems, homelessness and social dysfunction. The article also states, “veterans with comorbid AUD/PTSD were more than three times as likely as veterans with PTSD only to have attempted suicide in their lifetimes.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosed anxiety disorder. It can develop when a person perceives extreme danger, fearing for their life or the life of another or fearing other physical or mental harm. The trauma can result from one major event, like a devastating natural disaster, or it can take place over time, such as during combat or repeated physical or sexual abuse. When confronted with danger, the brain triggers a “fight or flight” response, increasing heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and body temperature. These physical responses continue even when the danger is no longer present. The National Center for PTSD estimates that up to 20% of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer from PTSD in a given year.

A 2013 study partially funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found,
“approximately half of individuals seeking SUD treatment meet criteria for current PTSD and individuals with co-occurring PTSD-SUD tend to have poorer treatment outcomes compared with those without such comorbidity.”

Drug Abuse Among Military

While the rate of illegal drug use by active duty military and veterans is relatively low, more veterans are abusing prescription drugs after they return home. Many veterans receive severe injuries during their deployments, and are often treated with powerful and highly addictive opioid pain medications.

Statistics published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) regarding the use of opioids in the general population versus the military population after deployment are disturbing. The NIH found 26% of the general population suffers from chronic pain versus 44% of military personnel. While 4% of the general population uses opioid painkillers, 15% of the military population does. Survey results show a higher rate of opioid abuse among military personnel than among civilians.

Treatment Options for Veterans

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers a substance abuse treatment and rehab program called the Veterans Alcohol and Drug Dependence Rehabilitation Program. To qualify for treatment, the veteran must be enrolled in the VA health care system. Treatment takes place at a VA medical center or clinic. The VA program may have a long waiting list for services, and in an effort to get help for veterans immediately, the VA has contracted with some appropriate treatment centers that provide substance abuse treatment. The veteran would need to contact their VA to get a referral for a participating treatment center in the area.

Turning Point of Tampa’s goal is to always provide a safe environment and a solid foundation in 12-Step recovery, in tandem with quality individual therapy and groups. We have been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Substance Abuse, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987.

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