Supporting a Fellow Veteran with an Addiction

Written by The Recovery Village

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Kevin Wandler, MD

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Last Updated - 06/25/2024

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Key Takeaways

  • Veterans are at a higher risk for substance abuse and mental health issues due to factors like combat stress and traumatic events.
  • PTSD in veterans often co-occurs with chronic pain and increases the risk of substance use disorders, especially alcohol use disorder.
  • Military culture and stigma can deter veterans from seeking help for substance abuse, exacerbating the issue.
  • Identifying addiction in veterans involves observing behavioral changes, physical symptoms, and emotional indicators.
  • Approaching veterans struggling with addiction requires sensitivity, empathy, and respect, focusing on non-confrontational communication and support.
  • Support networks, including family, peers, and recovery communities, are crucial for veterans’ recovery from addiction.
  • Healthy coping strategies for veterans in recovery include active coping, mindfulness, and engaging in support groups.
  • The VA provides comprehensive addiction resources for veterans, including medication, counseling, and therapy.
  • Community care programs and innovative treatments like psychedelic drugs for PTSD are being explored to improve veterans’ health outcomes.
  • Immediate assistance for veterans is available through the Veterans Crisis Line and other support groups.

Veterans face distinct challenges that predispose them to a higher risk of substance abuse and mental health issues. Factors like separation from support systems, the stress of combat, and witnessing traumatic events contribute to these risks. Research from PubMed highlights the increased prevalence of depression among veterans due to these stressors. The Department of Defense and the VA have emphasized suicide prevention, responding to the rise in suicide attempts among veterans during recent conflicts.

PTSD and Substance Use Disorder in Veterans

PTSD is a significant concern for veterans, often co-occurring with chronic pain, which is associated with an increased risk of substance use disorders (SUDs), particularly alcohol use disorder (AUD). The National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that certain demographics, such as lower rank, being unmarried, and having a low level of education, are at higher risk for PTSD, which can lead to substance abuse.

The Impact of Substance Abuse

Substance abuse further complicates veterans’ mental health, with opioid prescriptions and misuse being notably problematic, as stated by the NCBI. Veterans with mental health disorders are more likely to receive higher doses of opioids, leading to a greater risk of opioid use disorders and related adverse outcomes. Alcohol misuse is also a concern, with high levels of combat exposure correlating with problematic drinking behaviors.

Integrated Treatment Approaches

Addressing these challenges requires an integrated approach to treatment that considers the unique needs of veterans. Prevention strategies, support systems, and specialized treatments are crucial for mitigating the risk of substance abuse among veterans with PTSD. Additionally, exploring new solutions, such as the use of psychedelic drugs for PTSD treatment, reflects ongoing efforts to improve veterans’ mental health and quality of life.

Exploring the Connection Between PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and substance abuse are intricately linked, especially among veterans who have experienced traumatic events during their service. Research has consistently shown that individuals with a history of trauma, such as veterans, are at a significantly higher risk for developing substance use disorders (SUDs). This risk is compounded by the unique stressors and mental health challenges that are often associated with military service, including exposure to combat and military sexual trauma.

PTSD and Emotional Dysregulation

PTSD can lead to emotional dysregulation, which is a common factor contributing to substance abuse. Emotion regulation strategies are crucial for preventing the severity and maintenance of PTSD symptoms, and thus, the development of SUDs. 

Self-Medication and PTSD in Veterans

The use of substances can begin as a means to self-medicate, attempting to alleviate the distressing symptoms of PTSD, such as flashbacks, anxiety, and insomnia. Over time, this can evolve into dependency, creating a cycle of addiction that can be challenging to break.

Prevalence of PTSD and Treatment Options

Among veterans, the prevalence of lifetime substance use disorders is notably higher in those with PTSD compared to those without. For instance, studies have indicated that the prevalence of lifetime SUDs can range from approximately 21.6% to 43.0% in persons with PTSD. This is in contrast to the 8.1% to 24.7% prevalence in individuals without PTSD. 

In the context of treatment, integrated approaches that address both PTSD and substance abuse concurrently are considered best practices, as they can lead to improvements in PTSD symptoms and substance abuse outcomes.

Military Culture’s Role in Substance Abuse Among Veterans

The culture within the military has significant implications for substance abuse among its personnel and veterans. Military life is often characterized by a high-stress environment, with unique challenges such as the potential for combat exposure and the need for constant readiness. This can lead to increased risk-taking behaviors, including substance use as a coping mechanism. 

Substance Use as a Coping Mechanism

A study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse highlights that veterans are more likely to use tobacco and alcohol than non-veterans, with a notable percentage starting to smoke after enlistment. The pressure to conform to a culture that may implicitly encourage or tolerate substance use can exacerbate these tendencies.

Stigma and Barriers to Seeking Help

Moreover, the emphasis on toughness and self-reliance within military culture can deter individuals from seeking help for substance use disorders (SUDs), further entrenching the issue. Stigma associated with mental health and substance abuse treatment remains a barrier, as service members may fear being perceived as weak or unfit for duty. Programs such as the Army’s Combat Operational Stress Control and the Real Warriors Campaign are working to reduce this stigma and encourage service members to seek help.

Co-occurring Disorders and Comprehensive Treatment

Research indicates that the prevalence of co-occurring disorders, such as PTSD and SUDs, is higher among military populations compared to civilians. The co-occurrence can have profound effects on mental health, complicating treatment and recovery. It is crucial for military and veteran support systems to provide comprehensive, integrated treatment options that address both mental health and substance abuse issues concurrently to improve outcomes for affected individuals.

Changing Military Culture

Ultimately, changing the military culture to one that supports mental well-being and responsible substance use is a critical step in preventing and treating SUDs among veterans and active-duty personnel. This includes initiatives for early identification of substance misuse and promoting a supportive environment for those seeking treatment.

Identifying Addiction Signs in Veterans

Veterans may face unique challenges that contribute to the development of addiction, often intertwined with mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Recognizing the signs of addiction in veterans is crucial for timely intervention and support. 

Behavioral changes in veterans that may indicate addiction include:

  • Increased secrecy
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Neglect of responsibilities
  • Sudden disinterest in activities they once enjoyed

Physical symptoms can manifest as:

  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Neglect of personal hygiene

Emotional changes are also telling, with veterans possibly displaying:

  • Increased irritability
  • Mood swings
  • A general sense of hopelessness

It’s important to note that addiction can exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions, making it vital to address both concurrently. The Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledges the need for comprehensive care and has initiatives in place to support veterans through various treatment options and resources.

Understanding these signs is the first step in supporting veterans who may be struggling with addiction. It’s imperative to approach with empathy and offer resources such as medication-assisted treatment (MAT), therapy, and peer support groups, ensuring a supportive path towards recovery.

Identifying Behavioral Changes in Veterans Signaling Addiction

Recognizing behavioral changes in veterans can be pivotal for identifying addiction early and providing necessary support. Veterans struggling with addiction might exhibit several indicative behaviors that warrant attention. These behaviors can manifest as:

  • Changes in social dynamics
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Unexplained absences from important commitments
  • Decline in work or academic performance
  • Lack of motivation or focus

Other Signs of Addiction in Veterans

  • Physical Signs: Veterans struggling with addition may show changes in appearance, neglect of personal hygiene, and unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Emotional Changes: Veterans may exhibit increased irritability, mood swings, or aggression, which could be out of character for their typical demeanor. 
  • Financial Problems: Financial difficulties may arise, often due to spending on substances, leading to uncharacteristic borrowing or stealing. 
  • Secrecy and Defensive Behavior: When questioned about these changes, secrecy and defensive behavior are common responses.

It’s crucial to approach these observations with empathy and understanding, recognizing that such behavioral shifts may be symptomatic of underlying issues, including PTSD or other mental health challenges that are prevalent among veterans. 

If these signs are apparent, it may be time to gently offer support and encourage professional help. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides resources and treatment options tailored to veterans’ unique experiences, often including evidence-based therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to address addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders.

Identifying Physical and Emotional Indicators of Substance Abuse in Veterans

Veterans may exhibit various physical and emotional symptoms that can indicate a struggle with substance abuse. Physically, veterans with addiction may experience:

  • Chronic pain
  • Sleep disturbances like obstructive sleep apnea
  • Headaches
  • Hearing loss

These physical ailments often co-occur with substance use disorders (SUDs), particularly alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

Emotional symptoms are closely tied to co-occurring mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depressive disorder (MDD), which are prevalent among veterans. Research indicates that veterans with PTSD are more likely to receive higher doses of opioid medications, which can lead to addiction and further emotional distress.

The following behavioral changes in veterans may also signal addiction:

  • Increased aggression
  • Isolation
  • A decline in self-care

The use of substances may initially serve as a coping mechanism for underlying trauma or stress, but can quickly escalate to dependency. Veterans struggling with addiction might also engage in risky behaviors, including driving under the influence or mixing substances, which can exacerbate their physical and emotional symptoms. It is crucial for healthcare providers to screen for both SUDs and co-occurring mental health issues, as these often interact and impact the overall well-being of the individual.

Understanding the interplay between physical pain, emotional distress, and substance abuse is essential when supporting veterans. Recognizing these symptoms can lead to earlier intervention and tailored treatment strategies that address the unique challenges faced by veterans, such as trauma-informed care and support for chronic pain management without the risk of addiction.

Guidelines for Approaching Veterans Struggling with Addiction

Approaching a veteran struggling with addiction requires sensitivity, empathy, and respect. Understanding the complexities of military culture and the unique challenges faced by veterans, such as PTSD and other mental health issues, is crucial in providing effective support. It’s also important to recognize that trauma and the stressors of military service can contribute to substance abuse, and addressing these underlying issues is a vital part of the recovery process.

When communicating concerns, it is essential to do so in a non-confrontational manner. Emphasize your support and willingness to help, rather than placing blame or making the veteran feel judged. Timing is also critical; choose a moment when the veteran seems most receptive to discussion, and avoid times of high stress or emotional turmoil.

Resources for Helping Veterans with Addiction

Resources such as the VA’s Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Program, the Overdose Prevention Strategy, and MISSION Act Community Care Program can provide veterans with access to treatment and support. Encourage the veteran to explore these options and offer to assist with navigating these resources.

Effective Communication Strategies for Addressing Substance Abuse in Veterans

Communicating concerns about a veteran’s substance abuse requires a compassionate approach that acknowledges the unique challenges faced by veterans. Here are some strategies to effectively address substance abuse issues:

  • Use Empathetic Language: Choose words that convey understanding and empathy. Avoid medical jargon that may confuse or alienate the veteran.
  • Be Patient and Nonjudgmental: Veterans may be dealing with complex issues like PTSD or chronic pain, which can contribute to substance abuse. Approach the conversation with patience and without judgment.
  • Focus on Active Listening: Give the veteran your full attention, and encourage them to share their experiences and feelings. Active listening can build trust and make the veteran feel heard.
  • Timing is Crucial: Choose the right moment for the conversation, when the veteran is most likely to be receptive and not under the influence of substances.
  • Provide Information on Resources: Offer information about specialized treatment programs and support networks available to veterans, such as those offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other veteran-focused organizations.
  • Encourage Professional Help: Suggest seeking help from healthcare providers trained in veteran-specific issues, who can offer integrated treatment for substance abuse and mental health.
  • Highlight the Importance of Support: Emphasize the role of support networks in recovery and encourage the veteran to connect with peers who understand their experiences.

By using these strategies, you can help create a supportive environment that encourages veterans to seek the help they need for substance abuse issues.

Optimal Timing for Addressing Addiction with Veterans

Approaching a veteran about their addiction requires careful consideration of timing. The unique experiences and challenges that veterans face, including mental health conditions like PTSD, can significantly influence their relationship with substance use. It’s crucial to ensure that the veteran is in a receptive state, which may be indicated by moments of clarity or a lull in crisis situations. 

Respect the Veteran’s Readiness to Change

The timing should also respect the individual’s readiness to change, a concept central to motivational interviewing techniques used by professionals. This approach is more effective when the veteran shows signs of being open to discussing their addiction.

Using an Integrated Treatment Approach for Veterans with PTSD

Given the strong connection between PTSD and substance abuse, it’s essential to approach veterans with empathy and understanding. Research has shown that integrated treatment, addressing both PTSD and substance use simultaneously, is more effective. 

It might be beneficial to initiate the conversation following therapy sessions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), when the veteran is actively engaged in their mental health journey.

Approaching the Subject Non-Confrontationally

The approach should be private and devoid of judgment or confrontation. Veterans often come from a culture that values toughness and self-reliance, which can make admitting to addiction and seeking help more challenging. 

Leveraging Support Systems

It is also important to consider the veteran’s support system and whether they have a network in place to aid in recovery. Ensuring that the conversation happens at a time when these supports are available can make a significant difference in the veteran’s willingness to engage in treatment and recovery.

Guidance on Supporting Veterans in Their Recovery Journey

Supporting veterans through their recovery from addiction requires a comprehensive understanding of their unique experiences and the challenges they face. 

Veteran Supported Recovery Initiatives

The New York Certification Board’s Veteran Supported Recovery (VSR) initiative is an example of efforts to enhance services for veterans, recognizing the disproportionate prevalence of issues like suicide, addiction, and homelessness among this group. The initiative focuses on:

  • Strengthening the workforce and
  • Providing certification for those aiding veterans in their transition to civilian life

Role of Organizations and Communities in Supporting Veterans

Organizations such as DAV (Disabled American Veterans) emphasize the significant role that individuals and communities play in supporting veterans. Awards like the DAV’s Disabled Veteran of the Year highlight the impact that veterans can have in serving their peers, and the importance of shared experiences in the recovery process. 

The VA’s Equity Action Plan further demonstrates a commitment to ensuring that all veterans receive the healthcare and benefits they’ve earned, which is integral to their recovery journey.

Financial Resources for Veterans Seeking Support

Financial resources, such as grants and emergency financial assistance, are also vital in providing support for veterans. The Veterans Cemetery Grants Program, for example, offers a form of long-term support by ensuring that veterans’ burial needs are met. For those currently struggling, the Veterans Crisis Line offers immediate assistance, reflecting the importance of accessible support networks during recovery.

Comprehensive Support Approach

Ultimately, supporting a veteran through recovery is about more than just addressing addiction; it’s about acknowledging and responding to the myriad of interconnected challenges they face. By providing comprehensive support that includes financial assistance, mental health resources, and a strong community network, we can better assist veterans on their path to recovery.

The Vital Role of Support Networks in Veteran Addiction Recovery

Support networks play a crucial role in the recovery process for veterans grappling with addiction. These networks, comprised of family, peers, and recovery communities, provide the necessary emotional, social, and educational backing that can significantly enhance the likelihood of sustained sobriety and mental wellness. Studies have shown that recovery support services, such as those offered by recovery community centers (RCCs), contribute to improved relationships with providers, increased retention in treatment programs, higher satisfaction with treatment experiences, and reduced relapse rates.

  • Family Support: Family involvement in a veteran’s recovery journey can be transformative. It offers a chance for healing together, understanding codependency, and learning effective aftercare support through counseling and educational workshops on addiction and relapse prevention.
  • Peer Support: Peer support, where veterans assist each other based on shared experiences, has been shown to increase engagement and retention in treatment, fostering a sense of belonging and understanding. The prevalence of substance use among veterans underscores the importance of peer support in facilitating recovery.
  • Recovery Communities: Recovery communities provide a variety of services, including recovery coaching, space for meetings, and employment assistance. Embracing multiple pathways to recovery, these centers offer personalized resources that cater to individual needs and bolster long-term recovery outcomes.

It is evident that a multifaceted support network is vital for veterans in recovery. By providing a sense of community, understanding, and a suite of resources tailored to the unique challenges faced by veterans, support networks play an indispensable role in navigating the journey to sobriety and mental health.

Promoting Healthy Coping Strategies for Veterans in Recovery

Veterans in recovery from addiction often face the dual challenge of managing their substance use disorder alongside mental health conditions like PTSD. Encouraging healthy coping mechanisms is vital for their sustainable recovery.

Active Coping Strategies 

The National Center for PTSD highlights the importance of active coping strategies, which involve taking direct actions to improve one’s situation and making it a consistent part of daily life. This can include engaging in regular exercise, which has been shown to:

  • Improve physical and psychological health
  • Reduce tension
  • Reduce stress
  • Ease anxiety
  • Help with depression
  • Aid sleep problems
  • Positively affect the brain’s reward systems

Mindfulness Practices

Moreover, the Department of Veterans Affairs emphasizes mindfulness as a way to purposefully pay attention to the present moment, which can help veterans center themselves and reduce stress. Mindfulness practices can be incorporated through VA’s #LiveWholeHealth self-care video series, which offers resources and sessions for veterans to follow at home. 

Emergency Support

The Veterans Crisis Line provides immediate support for veterans in emotional distress and can be reached by calling 988 and pressing 1.

Social Support and Therapy

It is also important to recognize the power of social support and therapy. Veterans can benefit from connecting with fellow veterans and participating in group therapy sessions where they can share experiences and coping strategies. Encouraging veterans to seek out and utilize these resources, along with professional treatment options, can significantly aid in their journey towards recovery and the development of healthy coping mechanisms.

Available Addiction Resources for Veterans

Veterans grappling with substance use disorders (SUDs) have access to a comprehensive suite of resources tailored to address their unique needs. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides a cornerstone of support, offering medication options, counseling, therapy, and treatments for related health conditions like PTSD and depression. These services are designed to manage pain, SUDs, and mental health issues integral to veterans’ well-being.

VA Services for Substance Use Problems

To access VA services for substance use problems, veterans without a primary care provider or those new to VA can contact their local VA medical center and speak to the Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn (OEF/OIF/OND) coordinator. For immediate assistance, the Veterans Crisis Line is available 24/7.

Specialized Support Programs

For veterans seeking help with nicotine addiction, the VA Tobacco Cessation program provides support. Female veterans can access resources that cater to their experiences through the VA Women Veterans Call Center. Additionally, the VA Community Care Network includes high-quality private providers that accept VA health insurance, broadening the availability of specialized addiction and mental health support.

For veterans facing homelessness or at risk, the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans offers crucial support. Moreover, community resources like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provide educational programs for families and individuals coping with mental health issues. To explore the full range of VA mental health services, veterans can visit the VA Mental Health Services page.

Comprehensive Addiction Treatment Options for Veterans

Veterans grappling with addiction have access to a multifaceted range of treatment options designed to address the complexities of their unique experiences. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides evidence-based treatments including medication-assisted treatment (MAT), various forms of counseling, and therapies for co-occurring mental health conditions such as PTSD and depression. These treatments are available at VA facilities and through community care programs under the VA MISSION Act.

VA Addictive Disorders Treatment Plan

For veterans with substance use disorders (SUD), the Addictive Disorders Treatment Program (ADTP) offers recovery programs that include:

  • Individual therapy
  • Couples therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Group therapy

Recognizing the interconnectedness of mental health and addiction, the VA also explores innovative treatments, such as the use of psychedelic drugs like MDMA and psilocybin for treating PTSD, as part of its commitment to improving veterans’ health outcomes.

VA’s 2024 Equity Action Plan

Moreover, the VA’s 2024 Equity Action Plan aims to ensure equitable access to health care and benefits for all veterans, including historically underserved communities. This plan includes updating resources and outreach efforts to engage and support veterans, such as the Transition Assistance Program and VA-accredited Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs).

MISSION Act Community Care Program

For veterans unable to receive certain services through the VA, the MISSION Act Community Care Program allows them to seek care from approved community providers. This program ensures that veterans can access the necessary addiction treatment, which may include:

  • Outpatient care
  • Inpatient care
  • Detoxification services
  • Long-term rehabilitation

Overdose Prevention Strategy

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has expanded its Overdose Prevention Strategy, increasing access to life-saving treatments like buprenorphine and naloxone, further supporting veterans in their journey to recovery.

Veteran Support Groups and Recovery Resources

For veterans grappling with addiction, a robust support system is crucial for successful recovery. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers a comprehensive suite of services to assist veterans, including specialized treatment options for substance use disorders (SUDs) and co-occurring mental health conditions. Veterans can access these services through the VA’s substance use treatment programs, which include medication options, counseling, and therapy. Additionally, support for related conditions such as PTSD and depression is available.

  • Recovery-oriented mutual self-help groups, which are not part of professional treatment but provide valuable peer support, can be found through the VA’s resources. For instance, the recovery-oriented mutual self-help groups encourage self-exploration and growth, complementing formal treatment plans.
  • Virtual meetings, such as those offered by SAFE Project’s Virtual Veterans Recovery Meetings, provide an accessible platform for veterans to connect and share their recovery experiences. These meetings are crucial for those seeking camaraderie and a safe space to discuss challenges and progress.
  • For immediate help, veterans can contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 988 and press 1, or call the VA’s general information hotline at 1-800-827-1000. The VA also encourages veterans to take a brief screening questionnaire to identify potential signs of SUDs, reinforcing early detection and intervention.

It’s important to also acknowledge the role of family and community in supporting veterans through addiction recovery. Learning about addiction and co-occurring issues is vital for providing the right support to veterans. Reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and substance misuse in the military community is an ongoing effort that requires a collective response.

Addiction Treatment for Veterans at The Recovery Village Cherry Hill

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.


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