How Veterans Can Address Substance Misuse
It is not unusual for veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to experience symptoms of combat stress. Additionally, some veterans may also misuse alcohol, tobacco or drugs, which can lead to significant risks to health and well-being. The abuse of alcohol, tobacco or drugs can seriously harm your health, cause mood and behavior problems, damage relationships, cause financial problems and lead to a number of other problems for veterans reintegrating into civilian life.1
Fortunately, problems with substance misuse can be treated or dealt with. A number of helpful resources from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and other organizations are available to help those who have served our nation in the armed forces return to peak functioning.
You Are Not Alone in the Fight Against Alcohol and Drug Misuse
A number of studies of military personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have found a strong connection between alcohol and drug use and PTSD and other psychological concerns that may occur after traumatic events. In fact, similar findings have been reported among Vietnam and 1991 Gulf War veterans. Another study found a significantly increased risk for alcohol misuse among Reserve and National Guard personnel deployed with reported combat exposure, compared with non-deployed Reserve and National Guard personnel.2
Simply put, misusing drugs, alcohol or other substances can be a common reaction to experiencing uncommonly stressful events.
The use of alcohol or drugs among veterans may be motivated by desires to escape or alleviate uncomfortable or painful memories. That is, alcohol or drugs may be wrongly used to self-medicate distressing thoughts about guilt, anger, isolation or other emotions that arise from having PTSD or depression, or the experience of a traumatic event.3 While drinking and drug use may initially result in a reduction in stress, it can lead to many serious problems.
Finding Treatment for Misuse of Alcohol or Drugs
Talk to Someone NowLog on to Real Warriors Live Chat or call 866-966-1020 to speak with a trained health resource consultant at the DCoE Outreach Center. This free, confidential resource is available to you 24/7.
Many people find it difficult to reduce their misuse of drugs or alcohol on their own. That’s why a variety of effective treatments are available to veterans through VA. These treatments address all types of problems related to substance use, from unhealthy use of alcohol to life-threatening addictions. Treatment options include therapy (alone or in a group), as well as medications to help veterans reduce their use of alcohol or drugs.
To ensure veterans can attend VA treatment services, programs offer evening and weekend hours. Residential (live-in) options are available for veterans who live far away from a VA clinic or have unstable housing. And special programs for women, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and homeless patients are also available.
Here are four ways to take the first step towards treatment and recovery:
- Speak with your existing VA health care provider
- Contact the Operation Enduring Freedom / Operation Iraqi Freedom Coordinator at your local VA Medical Center
- Contact your local Vet Center
- Call 800-827-1000, VA’s general information hotline
If you’d like to look for treatment options outside of VA, use the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website. This searchable directory displays the location of facilities around the country that treat alcohol and drug abuse problems. Here, you will find information for more than 11,000 treatment options, including programs for marijuana, cocaine and heroin addiction.
Quitting Smoking Is Also Important to Health
Veterans have also been found to have high rates of smoking and nicotine use. In fact, one study showed that about one-third of veterans were current smokers, a rate that is higher than that of the civilian population.3 This is a serious issue, as smokers die 13 to 15 years earlier than non-smokers.4 Fortunately though, despite these high rates of smoking, many of those in the study were motivated to quit. In fact, half of the smokers said they intended to quit within six months.
There are a number of resources available to help you quit smoking and improve your health. A great place to start is the Quitting Smoking page on the VA website. The Department of Defense program, Quit Tobacco, Make Everyone Proud, provides information and resources for developing a personalized plan for quitting and a private live help feature. Finally, you can visit smokefree.gov for a free, step-by-step quitting guide.
Reaching Out Is a Sign of Courage
If you’re experiencing concerns about drinking, drug use, smoking or a psychological health concern, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Substance misuse can be a common reaction to uncommon stress, but it can be treated and dealt with. Use the resources in this article to find the right resources for regaining your peak functioning.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, A Quick Guide to Finding Effective Alcohol and Drug Addiction Treatment [PDF 11KB]
- Summary of how VA helps veterans address substance misuse
- National Institute on Drug Abuse, Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction
- National Institute on Drug Abuse, Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction
1"Topics in Brief: Substance Abuse among the Military, Veterans and their Familes," National Institutes of Health National Institute on Drug Abuse. Last accessed Oct. 18, 2012.
2Jacobson, Isabel G., MPH, et al.“Alcohol Use and Alcohol-Related Problems Before and After Military Combat Deployment,” The Journal of the American Medical Association 2008;300(6):663-675. Published Aug. 13, 2008.
3Tull, Matthew, Ph.D. “Alcohol Abuse in Veterans: Links to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” About.com. Updated Nov. 5, 2008.
4"Quitting Smoking," United States Department of Veterans Affairs Public Health. Last accessed Oct. 18, 2012.