Military veterans make personal sacrifices to protect their fellow Americans’ freedoms, and some encounter the most hostile, harshest places on earth in doing so. Veterans can face significant obstacles when readjusting to civilian life, and find difficulty coping with traumatic memories they suffered from their time in combat or watching unspeakable events take place. Many develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which comes from the emotional scars they suffered from their experiences in war.
While anyone can suffer from PTSD from a tragic or unsettling event that changes their lives, the rates of PTSD are much higher in veterans. For instance, civilians experience PTSD at about a level of 8%, compared to as much as 20% in veterans from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that 1 in every 10 veterans is diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder, higher than the rate of the general population.
Factors Contributing to Veteran Substance Abuse
Veterans are more likely to develop an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol because of the following issues prevalent in their population:
- Pain: Two-thirds of veterans report experiencing pain, and more than 90%have severe pain, compared to 6.4% of non-veterans. This puts veterans at a much higher risk of opioid prescription abuse. In recent years, fatal opioid overdoses among veterans, including overdoses of heroin and synthetic opioids not taken for pain relief, has increased from 14% in 2010 to 21% in 2016.
- Suicide risk: Veterans comprise about 20% of all suicides in the United States, many involving alcohol or drug use. Those who take opioid painkillers are more than twice as likely to commit suicide compared to those receiving lower doses.
- Trauma: Veterans with substance abuse disorders are 3 to 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD or depression. As many as half of Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans have a mental illness, and these conditions are strongly correlated with addiction.
- Homelessness: About 11% of homeless adults in the United States are veterans, and a 2014 study found that 70% of homeless veterans also had a substance abuse disorder. Because they are homeless, they face challenges and barriers to getting the treatment they need.
How Psychotherapy Can Help Veterans Adjust to Substance-Free Civilian Life
Sadly, relatively few veterans get the counseling they need to treat their substance abuse disorder. Issues compounding their ability to get effective treatment include gaps in insurance coverage, fear of stigma and other negative consequences, and concerns about a lack of confidentiality.
Individualized treatment and approved medication-assisted therapy can help veterans find peace and cope with the stresses of life without turning to drugs. Effective interventions focus on identifying and modifying unhealthy coping mechanisms and finding new ones. The military’s Tricare health system has expanded its treatment services, and offers coverage for intensive outpatient programs.
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