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Updated on October 1, 2021

Veterans and Alcohol Use Disorder

Veterans and Alcohol Abuse

It can take years for military veterans to adjust to civilian life after service. Unfortunately, many do not receive the support, guidance or health care to help them after their time in the service is over. As a result, some turn to drug abuse or alcohol to cope. They might also develop mental health issues that increase the risk of substance abuse or that occur because of substance abuse.

Veterans have an increased risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD). They are also at risk for PTSD, depression, and anxiety, especially those who were active duty. All of these issues are interlinked and create unique challenges for those who saw military service.

In some cases, a person uses alcohol to cope with PTSD or other disorders. In other cases, the risk of PTSD and other disorders is higher due to substance use. When alcohol use disorder (AUD) and mental illness occur simultaneously, it results in a co-occurring disorder diagnosis. For treatment to be effective, you must treat all issues together. Treating only one condition can result in serious health issues down the road.

Unfortunately, substance abuse in veterans is a common problem. The good news is that veteran alcohol treatment works. Customized treatment plans can address all of the issues at the same time and help the veteran lead a fulfilling and well-adjusted life.

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Causes of Veteran Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

There are several reasons why veterans tend to have a higher risk for alcohol problems and drug dependence.

For some, alcohol is a way to cope with PTSD and other mental health disorders they developed due to their time in the military. Veterans who experienced combat also tend to binge drink with more frequency. Binge drinking is consuming four or five drinks or more within just a few hours. This often leads to alcohol addiction. Approximately 20 percent of veterans who have PTSD also struggle with substance use disorder (SUD).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is one of the most common mental health issues that veterans face. It is a condition that occurs after a terrifying event. Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety. They also have uncontrollable thoughts about the event. It is possible to experience something traumatic without developing PTSD, but if a person has trouble coping for months or years after the event, a diagnosis of PTSD is likely.

Research shows there is a relationship between mental health issues, especially PTSD, and alcohol use. Either issue can arise first and increase a person’s risk for subsequent disorders. For example, someone who develops PTSD has a higher risk of alcohol misuse before and after PTSD develops. Problems with alcohol increase a person’s risk for being in a situation that would trigger PTSD and the development of PTSD increases a person’s risk for developing AUD. Alcohol use disorder and mental health disorders are very closely linked and either can lead to the development of the other.

Trauma, whether or not a mental health issue develops as a result, increases the risk of alcohol use problems. Data shows as many as three-quarters of people who survive violent traumatic events develop problems with alcohol. Many people turn to to self-medicate. About a third who survive traumatic accidents, illness, or disaster report drinking problems. This risk is even greater for people who experience trauma that results in ongoing health problems or pain.

It’s easy to understand why AUD is such a challenge for veterans with PTSD:

  • Almost 25 percent of veterans with PTSD also have SUD
  • Nearly one out of every three vets receiving treatment for SUD has a co-occurring diagnosis of PTSD
  • Binge drinking is a problem or veterans with SUD and PTSD and many use it to cope with bad memories of combat trauma
  • Approximately 10 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and receive medical services at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) struggle with alcohol or other substances 

Co-occurring PTSD and SUD also tend to increase a person’s risk for:

  • Physical pain and other health problems
  • Family and other relationship problems
  • Problems in the workplace

Depression

Depression is another mental health disorder common among service members. It is also closely linked with AUD. According to some estimates, more than 60 percent of people with AUD also have depression. Many vets don’t even realize depression is an issue until they seek treatment for their challenges with alcohol.

The truth is the misuse of any substance, including alcohol or prescription drugs, is one of the first indications of a mental health disorder such as depression. It’s common for the two to co-occur, especially when a person is dealing with their military experience. There is no rule regarding which comes first or which causes the other. Depression can lead to AUD or someone can develop a problem with drinking and later depression because of it. Either can be causal or a contributing factor in either case.

Various other factors exacerbate alcohol use disorder and depression, including:

  • Stress or trauma (both depression and AUD also have a link to PTSD)
  • Heredity
  • Neurology
  • Brain development (this can include TBI, which can occur in training or combat situations)

Consuming alcohol affects how the brain functions and makes a person more vulnerable to developing depression. AUD also increases the risk for other problems, such as issues with finances or work or relationships, all of which can then worsen depression. Misusing alcohol when depressed creates a cycle of self-abuse that makes the existing health conditions worse over time.

Anxiety

Anxiety is another disorder linked to AUD. 

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 20 percent of people with social anxiety disorder also abuse alcohol or have alcohol dependence.

Some people consume alcohol to help them cope with anxiety. Alcohol increases feelings of relaxation, which feels good when you are anxious. But the use of alcohol to “treat” anxiety backfires and tends to lead to overconsumption. Anxiety can also worsen when someone consumes alcohol. Excessive use of alcohol rewires the brain and makes a person more vulnerable to anxiety. 

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Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

AUD affects veterans of all ages, gender, and rank, and from all walks of life. Knowing the symptoms of alcohol use disorder makes it easier to know when to seek treatment or encourage a loved one to do so.

Symptoms of AUD include: 

  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as insomnia, nausea, and shaking
  • Feeling irritable or hostile toward others
  • Drinking alone or hiding alcohol consumption
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, and personal and professional goals
  • Engaging in high-risk behavior after drinking alcohol

Veterans Alcohol Treatment Services

Many treatment options are available for veterans with alcohol use disorder (AUD). It’s important to seek treatment not only for AUD but also for any co-occurring conditions. It’s essential to treat all disorders simultaneously.

Addiction treatment options are available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Find out more about the VA health care system, find your local VA, or call their hotline at https://www.va.gov/

There are other public and private treatment providers that provide alcohol rehab or drug rehab specifically for those who served in the armed forces. Your general healthcare provider should be able to recommend a treatment facility that has a rehabilitation program that fits your needs.

Treatment includes:

Overcoming addiction is very difficult, especially during the detox phase. It's important for veterans to undergo this process in a medically supervised treatment program.

Many of the substance abuse treatment options available focus specifically on the challenges faced by military personnel. Often, ongoing maintenance is needed, but it is possible to lead a fulfilling life while also managing struggles with alcohol, PTSD, and other disorders.

If you, a family member, or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse, reach out to a professional today.

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Resources

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“Substance Abuse in Veterans - PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” Va.Gov, 2014, www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/substance_abuse_vet.asp.

“Problems with Alcohol Use - PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” Va.Gov, 2014, www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/problem_alcohol_use.asp.

“My HealtheVet Veterans Health Library.” Va.Gov, 2014, www.veteranshealthlibrary.va.gov/

“Social Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol Abuse | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA.” Adaa.Org, 2019, adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder/social-anxiety-and-alcohol-abuse.

Related Pages

Addiction Resources for American Communities

Veterans and Addiction

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