Veterans and Addiction

Evidence shows that men and women who have served in the military are more likely to develop alcohol or substance use disorders. PTSD is a common cause of veterans' mental health disorders and substance abuse.
Evidence Based
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Thousands of men and women who have served in the United States Military struggle with addiction. Many combat veterans have co-occurring disorders, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injuries, or depression, which lead to higher rates of substance use disorders (SUDs).

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Veteran Addiction Statistics

Studies have shown that veterans use alcohol, opioids, tobacco, more than non-veterans.

  • 75 percent of Vietnam combat veterans with PTSD met criteria for substance abuse or dependence
  • Nearly 1 in 3 Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans have symptoms of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs), depression, or other mental illnesses or cognitive disabilities
  • 40 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans screened positive for hazardous drinking
  • VA records show that veterans heavily abuse prescription drugs
  • Veterans without a PTSD diagnosis do not qualify for substance abuse disability benefits.
  • 46 percent of veterans in federal prison are in for drug law violations
  • More than 25 percent of veterans in prison were intoxicated when arrested
  • 61 percent of imprisoned veterans met the criteria for substance dependence or abuse

19% of current conflict veterans who have received care from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs have been diagnosed with substance abuse or dependence.

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Veterans and PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that occurs after someone is exposed to a traumatic event. A traumatic event is something that exposes an individual to death (actual or threatened), serious injury, or sexual violence. Exposure means that the person has experienced, witnessed, or learned that the event happened to a loved one.

Symptoms vary from person to person and depend on a variety of different factors, including the type of trauma and age of the person. Symptoms usually begin early, within three months of the traumatic experience. However, they may also appear years later. Many people only experience short term symptoms, while some people develop chronic (long term) PTSD.

PTSD is especially common in military veterans. It is difficult for researchers to get an accurate number, but they estimate that at least 15 percent of veterans have PTSD. — Drug Policy Alliance

There is a strong correlation between PTSD and SUDs. Among recent Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans, 63 percent of those diagnosed with a substance use disorder also met criteria for PTSD. The number of veterans with PTSD who smoke is twice as much (60 percent) than the number of veterans without a PTSD diagnosis who smoke (30 percent).

Veterans with co-occurring disorders, such as PTSD and SUDs, have a much harder time overcoming addiction than those without them.

Two pills mixing equals dangerous

Addiction and Suicide Rates Among Veterans

The suicide rate among veterans is nearly double that of non-veterans. Substance abuse often precedes suicidal behavior in military veterans. Approximately 30 percent of military suicides involved drug or alcohol use.

In a 2017 study, the VA found that veterans receiving the highest doses of opioid pain relievers were more than twice as likely to die by suicide compared to those receiving the lowest doses. The study suggested that there may be a correlation between either chronic pain or opioid use and suicidal behaviors.

Graphic of 3 different types of medication bottles and pills.

Veterans and Painkiller Addiction

Two-thirds of veterans experience pain, while 9 percent report “severe” pain. The number of veterans in the VHA system receiving opioid pain reliever prescriptions has increased over the past two decades. This puts them at a much higher risk of developing a substance use disorder. Further, they are at higher risk for overdose deaths.

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Veteran Addiction Treatment Options

The US Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) provides services for all eligible veterans. These include:

  • Therapy (individual or group)
  • Medication
  • Counseling sessions to help veterans improve mental health and behavior
  • Seeking outside services, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, for additional aid

If you or a veteran you love is struggling with addiction, you can call 1-800-827-1000, VA's general information hotline to get help. You can also find a list of VAs and Vet Center facilities online at www.va.gov and www.vetcenter.va.gov.

Resources

Healing a Broken System: Veterans Battling Addiction and Incarceration. Drug Policy Alliance, 2009.

Lancaster, Cynthia L et al. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Overview of Evidence-Based Assessment and Treatment.” Journal of clinical medicine vol. 5,11 105. 22 Nov. 2016, doi:10.3390/jcm5110105

NIDA. "Substance Use and Military Life." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 23 Oct. 2019, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-military-life.

“Treatment Programs for Substance Use Problems.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 24 May 2010, https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/res-vatreatmentprograms.asp.

“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, May 2019, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml.

“Substance Abuse in Veterans.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 Dec. 2011, http://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/substance_abuse_vet.asp.

McCarthy, et al. “Suicide Mortality Among Patients Receiving Care in the Veterans Health Administration Health System.” American Journal of Epidemiology, 27 Feb. 2009, https://academic.oup.com/aje/article/169/8/1033/100867.

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Updated on: June 24, 2020
Author
Michael Bayba
About
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Medically Reviewed: March 18, 2020
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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