Understanding the root causes of substance use in Veterans and identifying treatment services available towards those individuals affected:

By Alisha Barnes, M.S.

Presence of Addiction in Veterans

Addiction is categorized as a complex brain disease, characterized by changes in the wiring of the brain and affecting aspects of judgment, decision-making and the management of behaviors. While addiction can exist in isolation, it is often found to be in conjunction with mental health disorders and can serve as a means of self-medicating negative emotions. The general population is subject to both environmental factors and genetic factors that contribute to either prevention or risk factors in reference to the development of substance use disorders (SUD). Common risk factors include the presence of trauma, an increase in stress, poverty and a lack of social attachments. Members of the armed forces are faced with additional risk factors in reference to substance abuse concerns, including episodes of deployment, armed combat, reintegration to civilian life following deployment and any resulting sleep disturbances and/or traumatic brain injuries that may have been sustained while on duty. The unique challenges that these individuals encounter can lead to an increase in traumatic experiences and thus, a higher rate of diagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to The National Institute of Drug Abuse, Veterans diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder were found to be 3-4 times more likely to receive a dual diagnosis of PTSD than their counterparts. Additionally, military duties have seen an increase in physical injuries, leading to higher rates of prescription pain medication and consequently, opioid dependence. In essence, the nature of the duties required in the services leads to a greater than average risk for both mental health disorders and the development of substance abuse disorder.

Rates of Suicide Among Veterans

Current national estimates note that 17 to 22 Veterans commit suicide daily, with male Veterans being 1.5 times more likely than their non-military counterparts to commit suicide and female Veterans being 2.5 times more likely than their non-military counterparts to commit suicide. In fact, The National Institute for Drug abuse reported that Veterans commit approximately 20% of yearly suicides despite only making up 10% of the national population. Of these suicides, about 30% have been noted to involve the use of substances at the time of death, demonstrating the magnitude of the issue at hand. Given the rise in completed suicides and the overwhelming connection between SUD’s and PTSD, the importance of seeking treatment as early as possible is evident. Yet there continues to be barriers towards treatment services, despite initiatives to improve access.

Stigma In Seeking Services

The availability of services through both The Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as the private sector of medical treatment, would leave one to believe that those desiring treatment have the resources to do so. Yet when polling Veterans requiring treatment, a plethora of barriers were noted interfering with services, including lack of access to insurance, concern regarding the consequence of seeking services on their military career and stigma associated with mental health concerns in the military. Part of overcoming this stigma is in increasing awareness, challenging addiction as a “moral failing” and offering additional education regarding addiction as a disease and thus, in need of treatment. Family involvement can increase ones comfort in seeking services and can offer much needed support in engaging in the process. The Department of Veterans Affairs has identified building a support network as a key process in both the prevention and treatment of SUD’s. As Veterans present with unique needs, it is important to choose a treatment facility that can offer services that provide the best opportunity for recovery.

Choosing A Treatment Center

The key is to make the first call to begin the process. This initial call can provide the individual with the information needed to determine the most appropriate level of care for their treatment based upon the substance of choice and the extensiveness of use. Dependent upon symptoms associated with the substance use, a dual facility may be recommended, as this would better allow the Veteran to simultaneously treat both the substance abuse disorder, as well as any underlying mental health disorder, including PTSD. Developing a firm understanding between the correlations of various disorders can be essential in maintaining recovery. Additionally, one should be cognizant of services offered, including whether or not the facility participates with medical assisted treatment or offers holistic services, as both aspects can offer an additional layer support for the recovering individual. Free substance abuse treatment is available through the Veterans Alcohol and Drug Dependence Rehabilitation Program for those Military Veterans enrolled in The Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare and having received an honorable discharge. Should an individual present with concern in utilizing the VA for services, whether that be a result of availability for seeking treatment (I.e. wait times) or a lack of local facilities, both private and non-profit agencies are available to meet those needs. Regardless of those concerns that may currently be inhibiting treatment, including financial difficulties, an intake representative is waiting and available to offer resources that can overcome these challenges. For the individual entering treatment for the first time, these challenges can seem overwhelming. Yet there is a plethora of information available to assist in streamlining this process and offering the information necessary to assist in choosing the most appropriate services (See below).

Resource Available for Veterans and Their Loved Ones

• Veterans Crisis Line/Suicide Hotline: 1-800-(273)-8255 or send a text message to 838255
• U.S Department of Veterans Affairs: https://www.va.gov/
• SAMHSA-HRSA Veterans Resource Guide: https://www.integration.samhsa.gov/clinical-practice/Veterans_Resource_Guide_FINAL.pdf
• Substance Use Treatment for Veterans: https://www.va.gov/health-care/health-needs-conditions/substance-use-problems/