Substance use disorder

PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans: When Our Boys Come Home

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People who suffer from substance use disorder (SUD) and addiction will often have co-occurring mental health disorders. Many such individuals will point to a traumatic experience in their past as contributing to their current battle with addiction. This can include death, sexual assault, or other harrowing incidents. Such trauma can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and cause problems with addiction. PTSD and substance abuse in veterans are increasingly common.

PTSD in the Military

Soldiers experience death and loss constantly. For months and years, they experience real emotional challenges, including:

  •  Separation from their families
  • Immediate danger 
  • Incredible levels of stress. 

Attempting to reintegrate into society and normal day-to-day life is a tall order, and staying away from illicit drugs in a desperate attempt to turn off the haunting voices is incredibly difficult. Considering the trauma they’ve experienced, the high rates of PTSD in military personnel and veterans is understandable.

How Does PTSD Happen?

Post traumatic stress disorder develops when people are exposed to significant traumatic events. Examples include:

  •  natural disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes
  • violent and/or sexual assault
  • accidents
  • war

People suffering from PTSD will experience flashbacks and searing visceral thoughts. For example, soldiers may experience such intense memories of times of danger, they will hear the gunshots, smell the smoke, and see death all around them. Sudden noises or a surprising touch can make them jump

Symptoms of PTSD

 The American Psychiatric Association breaks down the symptoms into four distinct categories [1]:

  1. Intrusion:
    Incessant nightmares and flashbacks. These memories can be so intense that victims may feel that they are actually living in that moment.
  2. Avoidance:
    People will hold back from talking or thinking about the event as much as humanly possible. They will go to great lengths to stay away from any places, things or situations that remind them of what happened. This can cause the trauma to become bottled up and torture them without relief.
  3. Alterations in cognition and mood:
    Important segments of the event will be pushed to the deepest recesses of the brain. These holes in the memory may lead to a distorted view of what actually happened. Often, people will blame themselves for doing things they never did, leading to guilt, shame, and anger at oneself. Victims will wallow in these deep pools of shame and remove themselves from their surroundings and the people that love them most.
  4. Alterations in arousal and reactivity:
    This includes scary outbursts of anger not consistent with the individual’s personality previous to the traumatic experience. One can have great difficulty sleeping, become overly cautious and anxious when doing normal activities, and/or have severe trouble concentrating on simple tasks.

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The Link Between PTSD and Addiction in Veterans

Trauma intensely impacts an individual’s ability to cope with the daily grind of life and its common stressors. It changes a person’s view of both themselves and the world around them. There are two reasons that PTSD can lead to substance abuse:
1. Drugs or alcohol provide a way to quiet the constant noise, the shame, and the guilt people feel because of what they have been through. 

2. Trauma also brings significant physiological effects. It lowers endorphins and brings depression and anxiety in its wake. Self-medication seems to be an easy solution - and then comes addiction.

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Statistics of PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans

Many studies have shown that PTSD and addiction rear their ugly heads disproportionately in military personnel and veterans.  

  • Over 20% of veterans that are diagnosed with PTSD have Substance Use Disorder (SUD) as well.
  • Almost a third of veterans seeking addiction treatment are diagnosed with PTSD.
  • Binge drinking in veterans with PTSD is significantly higher than the rest of the population. 32 percent of male military personnel aged 18-25 engage in heavy drinking compared to 17 percent of their civilian peers.  
  • Another study showed that 12 to 15 percent of returnees from combat pointed to problematic alcohol consumption in the initial 3 to 6 months of coming home [2].
  • In a recent example, PTSD rates for vets coming home from Operation Enduring Freedom (the war on Afghanistan was at a staggering 14 to 22 percent [3].

Drug and Alcohol Abuse in Veterans

Alcohol is one of the chief culprits of substance use for military personnel after leaving the battlefield. Over 65% of veterans entering treatment lay the blame for their addiction at the feet of alcohol, a figure that is nearly double the civilian population!

Many of our soldiers deal with chronic pain from injuries sustained in combat. Combined with the mental health issues created by battlefield conditions, this creates gateways to opioid and painkiller addictions[4]. Marijuana use is also quite common among vets.

Homeless Veterans with PTSD

The rate of homeless veterans, many who are suffering emotionally from their traumatic experiences, is disproportionate to the general population.

  • Veterans – Upon return from deployment, the struggle to reintegrate into society is crippling, because of mental illnesses like PTSD and other factors. Over 9% of the homeless in the USA are military veterans. This means that every single day there are over 40,000 people who have sacrificed greatly for our country, and have no place to call home.
  • Women – From a gender perspective, women previously in the military, many of whom were subjected to sexual assault of varying degrees, are twice as likely as female non-vets to experience homelessness.
  • Minorities and disabled – This segment of the population is way more likely to deal with being homeless. African Americans were more than 3 times more likely to identify as homeless than their white counterparts. Over 50 percent of homeless former military personnel have a disability as well.
  • Addiction – Homelessness is especially rampant for those entering residential addiction treatment and rehab. This group is over 10 times more likely to be homeless.

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Treatment and Insurance for PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a cabinet-tiered agency at the federal level. They are tasked with the distribution of benefits and healthcare provisions to eligible military personnel and their families. Besides over 1700 physical medical and outpatient clinics, they provide financial healthcare benefits through their insurance program known as Tricare.

It is imperative that veterans and their families are fully aware of the benefits available to them through their military insurance eligibility. Taking advantage of these programs  post-military gives the people that sacrificed so much for the safety of our nation a viable road back toward normalcy and meaningful lives. In a forthcoming post, we will outline how best to navigate Tricare and the valuable benefits they offer.

Treatment for Addiction and PTSD in Veterans at Avenues Recovery

There is a common misconception that a veteran can only receive addiction treatment through a VA facility. This is incorrect. Avenues Recovery, for example, is recognized by Tricare as an excellent option for drug and alcohol rehab, and treatment at our facility will be fully covered. 

Avenues staff is available 24/7 to help you with the information and insight you are looking for to reset you or your loved one’s life. Contact us today. We are standing by!






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