Effects of Substance Abuse on Veterans’ Families

Last Updated: June 25, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Key Takeaways

  • Substance misuse can lead to severe physical health problems, such as liver disease and cardiovascular issues.
  • The mental health of veterans is often worsened by substance misuse, which can exacerbate PTSD and depression symptoms.
  • Families of veterans with SUDs face emotional, social, and financial challenges, affecting family dynamics and well-being.
  • The VA offers specialized treatment options and support for veterans with SUDs, including medication, counseling, and therapy.
  • Comprehensive treatment approaches and support resources are available for families of veterans dealing with substance misuse.

Substance misuse among veterans has far-reaching consequences that extend beyond their individual health, impacting their families and communities. The prevalence of substance use disorders (SUDs) in veterans is a significant concern, often co-occurring with mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Veterans with PTSD are more likely to receive opioid prescriptions, which can lead to higher rates of opioid use disorders and adverse outcomes like overdoses and violence-related injuries. Research has shown that veterans with mental health diagnoses are more likely to develop opioid use disorders compared to those without such diagnoses.

Substances Commonly Abused by Veterans

  • Illicit Drugs: Illicit drug use, particularly marijuana, is roughly equivalent among veterans and their civilian counterparts, with a noted increase in cannabis use disorders among veterans over time.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol misuse is also a significant issue, with veterans experiencing higher rates of binge and heavy drinking, particularly those with high levels of combat exposure. 

These patterns of substance misuse can lead to physical health problems, such as liver disease, heart problems, and mental health issues, including exacerbated symptoms of PTSD and depression. Studies have indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic has further compounded these issues, with increases in alcohol and cannabis use among veterans with pre-existing depression.

Impact of Substance Misuse in Veterans

The impact of a veteran’s substance misuse extends to their family members, often resulting in emotional, social, and financial hardships. Family members may experience changes in the veteran’s personality and behavior, leading to strained relationships and difficulties adapting to new family dynamics. Treatment and support systems are crucial for addressing these challenges and promoting recovery for veterans and their families.

The Ripple Effect of Veterans’ Substance Abuse on Family Dynamics

The repercussions of substance misuse among veterans extend beyond the individual to deeply affect their families, including spouses, partners, and children. Substance misuse can lead to 

  • Increased familial stress
  • Emotional turmoil
  • Financial strain

It has been documented that partners of veterans with co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders may experience heightened distress, leading to a deterioration in relationship satisfaction and family life. Research during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that veterans with pre-existing behavioral health conditions, such as depression, may have increased substance use, further complicating the challenges faced by their families.

How Veterans Substance Use Can Impact Children

Children of veterans with substance use disorders are at risk of multiple adverse outcomes, including emotional and behavioral issues. The presence of substance misuse in the home can disrupt a child’s sense of security, sometimes leading to an increased risk of emotional or physical violence. Additionally, veterans dealing with substance misuse may experience personality changes and engage in riskier behaviors, which can exacerbate family hardships and lead to catastrophic outcomes. The VA highlights the importance of family support and encourages steps to be taken to assist veterans in seeking help.

Treatment Options for Veterans

Substance use disorders in veterans often co-occur with mental health issues like PTSD, depression, and anxiety, which can further complicate the family dynamic. Treatment options are available, and specialized services for female veterans and those with co-occurring disorders are critical for addressing the unique needs of the veteran population. The impact on families is profound, necessitating a comprehensive approach to treatment that includes family counseling and support resources to foster healthier coping mechanisms and family reintegration.

The Emotional Toll of Veterans’ Substance Abuse on Families

The repercussions of substance misuse among veterans are profound, extending beyond the individual to deeply affect their families. The emotional impact on family members can manifest in various ways, often leading to distressing consequences. 

Relationship Distress

Research has shown that partners of veterans with PTSD and substance use disorders may experience heightened distress in their relationships, with symptoms of trauma in veterans being predictive of lower relationship satisfaction. This can lead to a pervasive sense of grief and loss as the family’s sense of safety and normalcy is disrupted.

Personality Changes

Substance misuse can also precipitate drastic personality changes in veterans, which can be especially jarring for family members. These changes can include:

  • Increased hostility
  • Isolation
  • Mood swings
  • Potential for emotional or physical violence

This shift in behavior not only strains relationships but can also lead to a breakdown in family dynamics, causing significant emotional hardship for spouses, children, and extended family members.

Reintegration Challenges

Furthermore, the family unit may struggle with the veteran’s inability to reintegrate into civilian life, often exacerbated by mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, or anxiety. Chronic pain, often experienced by veterans, can also contribute to the risk of substance misuse, thereby compounding the emotional toll on families. 

Importance of Support and Treatment

It’s critical for families to seek support and engage in treatment programs that address both the veteran’s substance use and the family’s well-being. The Department of Veterans Affairs recommends steps for families to support their veteran loved ones and encourages them to seek help, highlighting the importance of a united front in coping with the challenges posed by substance misuse.

Financial and Social Impacts of Veterans’ Substance Abuse on Families

The repercussions of substance misuse among veterans extend far beyond the individual, significantly impacting their families both socially and financially. When a veteran struggles with substance use disorders (SUDs), the family dynamic often shifts as members adapt to the disruptions caused by the SUD. This can lead to an emotional toll, including feelings of fear, anxiety, and sadness, and can affect familial roles and responsibilities. 

Financial Consequences

Financially, the impact can be severe, with resources being diverted towards substance procurement at the expense of essential needs, such as rent or medical care. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) notes that the economic strain can include direct costs related to treatment and indirect costs due to lost productivity or legal issues. Moreover, addiction can lead to job loss and financial instability, further exacerbating the family’s economic challenges.

Social Repercussions

Stigmatization and social isolation are additional consequences families may face, with societal judgment often leading to a breakdown in social support networks. The strain on relationships within the family can lead to instability and even breakdowns in family structure, as detailed in a study published by BMC Psychiatry. These social and financial burdens not only affect the present well-being of family members but also have long-term implications for their emotional and economic stability.

Comprehensive Treatment and Support Strategies for Veterans with Substance Abuse Issues

Veterans facing substance misuse challenges have access to a variety of treatment options and support systems designed to address their unique needs. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers specialized programs that integrate medication options, counseling, and therapy for substance use disorders (SUDs), as well as support for related mental health conditions such as PTSD and depression. Veterans can learn more about these programs through resources like the VA’s substance use treatment page or by contacting the Veterans Crisis Line at 988 and pressing 1 for immediate assistance.

For veterans without a VA primary care provider or those new to VA services, contacting their local VA medical center or the OEF/OIF/OND coordinator is recommended. Family members of veterans are also encouraged to be supportive and can find guidance on how to help their loved ones through the VA’s recommendations. Additionally, clinicians can utilize tools like “Make the Connection” to engage with veterans or family members who may be hesitant to seek support. It’s crucial for veterans and their families to be aware of the comprehensive care options available to them, which can be life-saving in managing substance use and its associated challenges.

Comprehensive Treatment Approaches for Veterans Struggling with Substance Abuse

Substance misuse treatment for veterans is multifaceted, addressing the unique challenges faced by those who have served in the military. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers a range of treatment options that include:

  • Medication-assisted therapy (MAT)
    • Medications such as Suboxone, Naltrexone, and Acamprosate are used to reduce cravings, prevent relapse, and lower the risk of overdose
  • Counseling
  • Support for co-occurring conditions such as PTSD and depression

Therapy Options for Veterans

Additionally, the VA provides access to individual and group therapy, which can help veterans:

  • Manage the urge to use substances
  • Develop coping strategies
  • Work towards personal recovery goals

For those requiring more intensive care, outpatient detoxification services and inpatient consultation services are available.


The VA MISSION Act also plays a crucial role by allowing veterans to receive healthcare from community providers, expanding access to services not readily available through VA facilities. This includes addiction treatment covered under specific criteria, enabling veterans to receive comprehensive care within their communities.

Emergency Assistance

For immediate assistance, veterans in crisis can contact the Veterans Crisis Line by calling 988 and pressing 1. The VA’s commitment to addressing substance misuse among veterans is evident in its wide array of treatment programs and support resources, ensuring that veterans have access to the help they need to overcome substance misuse and related mental health challenges.

Support Resources for Families of Veterans with Substance Abuse Challenges

Families of veterans facing substance misuse challenges can access a range of support resources to help them navigate the complexities of their loved one’s condition. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers various programs:

  • Self-help tools for alcohol use disorder,
  • Tobacco cessation support
  • Treatment options for co-occurring health conditions such as PTSD and depression
  • Communication strategies for families to encourage veterans to seek help

Coaching Into Care Program

For personalized guidance, the Coaching Into Care program provides training on effective communication methods and symptom awareness. Families can call 888-823-7458 for assistance. 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Additionally, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers recovery support tools and defines recovery as a self-directed process of change to improve health and wellness.

Family Caregiver Assistance Program

For caregivers, the VA’s Family Caregiver Assistance Program provides coping skills and a support line. 

National Institute on Drug Abuse

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) also offers information on commonly misused drugs and addiction news. It is vital for families to seek support and education to understand substance misuse and its effects, enabling them to provide better care for their veteran loved ones.

Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment for Military Veterans 

If you’re a military veteran seeking addiction treatment, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is here to help. We are a part of the VA Community Care Network, and we offer a trauma-informed program designed for veterans and first responders. Contact a Veteran Advocate today to learn more or to get started with treatment. 

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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