Substance Misuse And PTSD In Veterans

Many who have served in the military struggle with addiction. Veterans who have seen combat may have co-occurring disorders, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). Once referred to as “shellshock” and “battle fatigue,” PTSD can be caused by witnessing warfare or other significantly tragic, traumatic, or startling events.

Research shows that more than 2 out of 10 veterans with PTSD also have a substance use disorder (SUD).

Some symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Memory problems
  • Low sense of self-worth
  • Hopelessness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Relationship problems
  • Aggression
  • Self-destructive behavior

These symptoms may be triggered by anything that is a reminder of the traumatic incident.

Although most cases of PTSD in veterans are caused by combat, veterans may also develop the disorder after sexual abuse in the military; about 23% of female veterans have reported being sexually assaulted during their time serving.

Traumatic events such as combat exposure and multiple deployments can also trigger drug or alcohol use. Many veterans turn to substance use to self-medicate and numb their pain and thoughts of the trauma. This is a dangerous practice, as people with PTSD often have a more difficult time overcoming addiction. Furthermore, the symptoms of withdrawal from substances combined with the symptoms of PTSD may amplify negative feelings and emotions, leading to relapse.

Featured Centers Offering Treatment For Veterans

Alcohol Use In The Military

Drinking is often seen as an ingrained part of military culture that can carry into civilian life. Sadly, veterans and service members who self-medicate with alcohol often succumb to an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Approximately 20% of service members report binge drinking at least once a week, and 65% of veterans entering a treatment program reported alcohol as their most frequently used substance, which is almost double that of the general population.

Illicit Drug Use

Some veterans addicted to medications for pain and PTSD turn to illicit substances, such as marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, and inhalants, as they can be easier to access and are cheaper than prescription drugs.

The risk of using illicit drugs in the military is significant, however, because it can result in a dishonorable discharge if caught.

Veterans And Prescription Medications

Veterans with PTSD are often prescribed medications to help treat their symptoms; however, this practice can be dangerous as most treatment medications have a high risk for addiction.

Some veterans with PTSD may be prescribed painkillers for combat-related injuries and chronic conditions. Similarly, many veterans struggle with anxiety related to their PTSD and are, therefore, also prescribed anti-anxiety medications. The addictive nature of both painkillers and anxiety medications, combined with veteran PTSD, may cause many veterans to develop an addiction.

In 2019, over 550,000 veterans reported misusing opioid pain medication.

Common medications prescribed to veterans include:

Veterans taking these drugs may develop a dependence on them, meaning they exhibit tolerance to the drugs’ effects and show symptoms of withdrawal when stopping the medication, causing them to increase their intake. As time goes on, their dependence on these medications may develop into an addiction, which can be characterized by compulsive drug-seeking behavior.

To curb the risk of addiction, some doctors may prescribe an antidepressant medication instead, such as Paxil or Zoloft. In an attempt to mitigate drug misuse among service members and veterans, some advocates are pushing for tighter regulations on how long addictive medications can be prescribed.

Veterans And Nicotine Addiction

Many veterans uptake smoking during their time in the military and continue their use after their service to cope with PTSD symptoms. Close to 30% of veterans report using tobacco products, such as cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Data shows that nearly 6 of 10 veterans with PTSD smoke, which is almost double those who do not have a PTSD diagnosis.

Treatment Options For Veterans

Veterans looking for treatment for their addiction have more options than the average civilian. Veterans have the unique option to seek treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This is beneficial for those who may not be able to find an affordable treatment program on their own. The VA offers programs designed specifically to deal with SUDs, but just as importantly also provides  treatment for co-occurring disorders like PTSD, depression, chronic pain, and sleep disorders.

Types of treatment the VA offers include:

In order to be as inclusive as possible, the VA offers daytime, nighttime, and weekend options.

One noted downside to seeking treatment at the VA is that it can take a long time to get treatment due to heavy demand and pre-allocated resources. In cases of severe PTSD and addiction, getting immediate treatment is essential, and seeking treatment outside of the VA can be beneficial. You can explore our rehab directory to find rehab options near you.

Addiction treatment programs that simultaneously focus on PTSD and addiction can be most successful for veterans. Research shows that treating PTSD and SUD at the same time works to treat both conditions. Concurrent Treatment of PTSD and Substance Use Disorders Using Prolonged Exposure (COPE) is a type of therapy that integrates both trauma-focused PTSD and SUD treatments.

If a person wants to treat their PTSD and SUD separately, trauma-focused therapies such as cognitive processing therapy (CPT), prolonged exposure (PE), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapies can help veterans process their traumatic experiences. Similarly, relapse prevention, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and contingency management are therapies that may help treat SUDs and AUDs.

What Should I Do If I Think I Have Co-Occurring PTSD And SUD?

If you went through a traumatic event or have trauma from your combat experiences and are experiencing symptoms for more than three months, you may have PTSD.

If you or your loved one thinks you may be misusing alcohol or other substances to cope with your PTSD or are struggling with addiction, help is available. Contact a treatment provider today to explore your treatment and rehab options.