Veteran Addiction and Mental Health Statistics
Veterans face mental health pressures and physical damage risks that ordinary citizens simply don’t have to manage. While military culture may not have supported veterans facing overwhelming pressure and pain in the past, recent trends within the VA to assist former service members has increased access to care. However, many returning soldiers and veterans may struggle to ask for help. Those who turn to legal and illegal drugs can be at risk of addiction.
By the Numbers
Rates of addiction among veterans are higher than among the general population. Across the nation, 23 million Americans struggle with addiction. The National Institutes of Health report that 10% of Americans have had a problem with drug use. Among veterans, that number is higher than 10%. While this may be due in part to the number of deployed soldiers and returning veterans being between ages 18 and 30, indications are that older veterans are at greater risk of addiction damage.
Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug among veterans and across society. Because we have a tendency to consider alcohol as a beverage for fun, socialization, and parties, too many young drinkers are unprepared for the depressive impact of this drug. Of veterans seeking help in a veterans medical facility, 80% abuse alcohol. The number of those who do not seek help but struggle with addiction on their own may well be higher.
Binge drinking among active-duty soldiers is especially worrying; this activity is also increasing in the civilian population with devastating results among those from 18 to 25 years old. It’s important to consider when a young person starts abusing drugs; for those who start in their early teens, the risk of addiction in adulthood can be three times higher than for someone who doesn’t use or drink until they turn 18.
Prescription Drug Abuse
As in the civilian population, prescription opioids are among the drugs most likely to become abused. Because the need for such drugs can grow quickly, the risk that someone who starts with a prescription opioid and moves to an illegal opioid, such as heroin, is high.
Illegal Drug Abuse
Among veterans, the most commonly abused illegal drug is marijuana. Because the legality of cannabis products is currently in flux, treatment and care are focused on addictive behaviors and the physical, mental, and social outcomes of substance use disorder.
Substance use disorder often occurs in conjunction with mental illness and mood disorders. Depression and anxiety can occur among veterans, but a veteran with a substance use disorder is much more likely to also be dealing with depression. Mental illness is comparatively common in veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reintegration challenges and exposure to trauma continue to plague many younger veterans.
There are indications that a prescriptive dosage of stimulants can offer some help to those struggling with PTSD. However, there are many veterans who are self-managing their mental health challenges and PTSD symptoms with illegal stimulants such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and amphetamines.
Stimulants pose extreme health risks including:
- Heart attack
- Psychotic breaks
Self-medication is never effective. Because veterans are an independent group, often trained to toughen up and overcome their problems on their own, the effects of stimulant use are advanced before a veteran seeks detox and treatment, and this can have permanent consequences.
Veterans are exposed to mental stresses and physical risks that many people simply will not be able to understand. While there are medications that can help veterans manage PTSD, these medications are often also used to treat anxiety and depression. The most impactful therapies found to date to treat PTSD are one-to-one talk therapies.
Military culture doesn’t have a strong history of supporting those who need in-person therapy and training. However, the VA is offering more effective support for veterans struggling with this stress and pressure.
Asking for help often takes a great deal of courage. If veterans have been relying on alcohol to fall asleep or cannabis to lower their stress level, undergoing therapy can be helpful. After intake, your therapist may use different techniques to help you.
Present-centered therapy teaches adaptive techniques to manage current stress and pressure. Written exposure therapy teaches new methods of thinking about your trauma triggers by writing out your experiences. By far the most common, however, is cognitive behavior therapy. This is when the veteran learns how to change the script, thoughts, and feelings about their traumatic experiences and then adjust their behaviors accordingly. Almost all therapists use cognitive behavior therapy to some extent.
Of course, one-to-one therapy takes time and resources. For veterans who struggle to get support from their military communities, using alcohol and illegal drugs can provide both a release and the socialization so necessary to returning veterans. Each veteran experience is different, and each PTSD treatment program will also need to be tailored to each person.
The Suicide Crisis
Current research indicates that suicide risk for returning veterans is highest in the first three years following deployment. Younger soldiers are at the greatest risk, particularly those who are unmarried and male.
Female veterans are shown to be at greater risk of suicide than non-veteran females in the same demographic. Male veterans are more likely to commit suicide post-deployment than during their deployments.
In addition to the greater risk in the first three years following deployment, there is data that indicates that the combination of youth and alcohol increases the suicide risk across both veteran and non-veteran groups.
Sadly, alcohol is culturally promoted as a festive beverage. In the brain, alcohol is a depressant. Regular alcohol use increases the risk of suicide ideation. Excessive drug and alcohol abuse can lead to isolation and may cause young people to find themselves in the company of people who are not interested in their well-being.
Young veterans struggling with PTSD, disabling injury histories, or any risk of mental illness need strong and supportive communities that do not center around drug and alcohol use. If a young veteran returns to a home where alcoholism has long been a problem, they will likely be at much greater risk of addiction themselves.
Additionally, many young people join the military to fund their higher education. A young person headed off to college with their veteran’s benefits may be at great risk of making poor social choices or joining in activities that are not safe and healthy. Support for returning veterans on campus is critical to finding healthy community connections.
Veterans exposed to the stress and pressure of deployment have a higher risk of disability than those who serve in peacetime. Because PTSD is a higher risk among veterans with a deployment history and is most effectively treated with in-person therapies, access to a supportive VA facility is critical to returning veterans.
Early treatment is also critical; the first three years after deployment are when the veteran is at the greatest risk of suicide. Alcohol and drug abuse during this three-year window increase the risk of developing a substance use disorder.
Veterans who have suffered physical injuries that have led to long-term disabilities will also need in-person access to VA services; whether they are in need of physical therapy, prosthesis fittings, and therapy, or effective chronic pain management, in-person management of these challenges is critical to helping a returning veteran make healthy choices.
Often, those who fall into homelessness suffer a long, painful slide into this isolation. A returning veteran may struggle with PTSD, leading to poor sleep and contentious social connections. They may start to avoid friends and family to avoid this pressure. As they avoid connection, they become even more isolated and possibly depressed.
To self-medicate their stress and loneliness, they may start to use alcohol and drugs. These choices will impact their physical health and ability to go to school or hold a job. These losses can create a financial crisis that leads to eviction and homelessness.
Once the veteran is unhoused, they may struggle to reach out for effective care. Without an address, it’s difficult to get a job, apply for benefits, and even get your mail. The best option may be for them to enter in-patient rehab and mental health care, but if the veteran is isolated enough by finances, mental illness, and substance use disorder, they may not be able to reach out and ask for such care.
A Way Forward
Of course, there are veterans who return home after deployment and thrive. There are also many veterans who ask for and receive mental health care before they enter a crisis stage. However, it is critical that veterans are made aware of the services available that can help them rebuild their community and health.
Whether a veteran enters in-person rehab for 28 to 90 days or uses an outpatient care service after detox, effective help is available to treat the challenges specific to veterans. While there are citizens struggling with addiction, PTSD, and mental health challenges, veterans face situations and risks that are often at an increased level. Effective care, tailored to their needs, is critical. Treatment, combined with an active and supportive community around them, is the best chance of improvement for veterans with addiction and mental health needs.