U.S. Military Veterans and Addiction

Military veterans are at a higher risk of developing addictions and other mental health issues than civilians. The men and women veterans who served our country deal with many challenges from traumatic events. Some veterans try to cope or self-medicate by abusing alcohol or other addictive substances.

Veterans Addiction Overview

While on active duty, military servicemembers endure a lot of high-stress experiences, especially deployment and combat exposure. After they leave duty, veterans often experience issues readjusting to civilian life.

Many veterans struggle with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), some of them experience homelessness, and many of them turn to alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs to cope.

6.2% of veterans (1.3 million people) had a substance use disorder (SUD) in 2019.

Veterans who experienced trauma in their service or were injured during combat are at risk for increased drinking or drug use.

Are You Battling a Mental Health Crisis?

Help is available for veterans! If you are struggling and need someone to talk to or connect you with resources please call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, text 838255, or go to https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/ to chat online with someone who can help.

If you, a family member, or someone you know are feeling anxious or having thoughts of self-harm, please do not hesitate to ask for help. Trained responders, many of whom are also veterans, are ready to help through the Veterans Crisis Line.

Veterans Substance Abuse

Most drug abuse issues develop after veterans leave the military because active service members can face dishonorable discharge and even criminal prosecution for a positive drug test.

Illicit drug use by veterans:

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that overall opioid overdose rates of veterans increased from 14% in 2010 to 21% in 2016.

Veterans Prescription Drug Addiction

Aside from illicit drugs, many veterans experience prescription drug abuse. Veterans injured during their service are often prescribed painkillers medication for chronic pain. Prescription pain medications are safe when used as directed by a doctor but can be misused to get high or become addictive. Opioid pain relievers can be especially addictive.

  • More than 65% of veterans report that they experience pain regularly.
  • 9% of veterans experience severe pain (compared to only 6.4% of non-veterans).
  • 555,000 veterans reported misusing pain medication in 2019.

The addictive nature of opioids combined with the mental health issues associated with military service cause many veterans to develop addictions to these drugs. Prescription opioid addiction such as hydrocodone, oxycodone can be especially dangerous because it can lead to the abuse of illegal opioids such as heroin.

Veterans & Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol use disorders and binge drinking are the most prevalent form of substance use disorders among military personnel.

65% percent of veterans who enter a treatment program (inpatient or outpatient) report alcohol as the substance they most frequently misuse, which is almost double that of the general population.

Data from 2017 shows higher rates of alcohol use among veterans than the general population;

  • 56.6% of veterans vs only 50.8% of the general population reported using alcohol in a 1-month-period.
  • 7.5% of veterans and only 6.5% of the general population reported heavy alcohol use in a 1-month-period.

Data from 2019 shows that veterans continue to use alcohol at high rates:

  • 65.4% of veterans ages 18-25 and 57% of veterans ages 26 and older reported using alcohol in the past month.
  • 9.9% of ages 18-25 and 5% of 26 and older veterans had an alcohol use disorder.

Veterans & Nicotine Addiction

Veterans are more likely than non-veterans to use tobacco products in nearly all age groups. The stress and trauma of military service cause many servicemembers and veterans to take up smoking.

Nearly 30% of veterans report using tobacco products.

Veterans who have PTSD are more likely to smoke tobacco. The number of veterans who smoke is almost double for those with PTSD (60%) versus those without a PTSD diagnosis (30%).

Tobacco-related health conditions cost the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) an estimated $2.7 billion. That includes the costs of smoking-related ambulatory care, prescription drugs, hospitalization, and home health care.

Veterans Mental Health Risks

The physical, mental, and emotional stresses that veterans deal with lead to high rates of substance use, depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.

It’s estimated that 40-50% of Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans have been diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder.

The veteran population is affected by several critical issues related to substance use, such as pain, suicide risk, trauma, and homelessness. Veterans are also affected by sleep disturbances, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and violence in relationships.

There are existing behavioral therapies such as dialectical behavioral therapy that may help veterans experiencing suicidal ideations.

Veterans and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

  • 20% of veterans with PTSD also have a substance use disorder.
  • 63% of recent Afghanistan and Iraq veterans diagnosed with substance use disorders also met the criteria for PTSD.
  • 30% of veterans seeking addiction treatment also have PTSD or other co-occurring disorders.

Veterans Suicide Facts

  • Veterans represented over 20% of all suicides in 2014.
  • A current average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day.
  • The suicide rate was 1.5x higher for veterans than non-veterans in 2016.

Veterans and Homelessness

  • 11% of homeless adults are veterans.
  • 70% of homeless veterans also have a substance use disorder.
  • 20% of veterans battling substance use treatment are homeless.

Military Veterans Addiction Treatment Options

There are a variety of treatment options available for U.S. Military Veterans battling substance abuse.

  • Medical Detox. There is medication-assisted treatment for a variety of drug addictions (opioids, benzodiazepines, alcohol use disorder)
  • Inpatient Treatment.  There are treatment centers available for veterans who require residential treatment.
  • Outpatient Treatment. There are treatment facilities and VA medical centers that allow patients to participate in treatment while continuing to live at home.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. There are treatment providers who can help veterans receive mental health treatment such as psychotherapy.

Using VA Health Care for treatment is a critical way to ensure relapse prevention.

Top Free Veterans Resources

Veterans Crisis Line

A free and confidential service to speak with trained responders, many of whom are also veterans if you or a loved one is going through a crisis.

Call 1-800-273-8255 or send a text message to 838255 or visit https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/

VetChange

A free U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) resource for military members concerned about their drinking.

https://www.ptsd.va.gov/apps/change/

SmokeFreeVet

Free tools, tips, and resources for becoming a smoke-free veterans

https://veterans.smokefree.gov/

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Substance Use Treatment for Veterans

Access the VA’s substance abuse treatment programs for veterans with substance use issues.

https://www.va.gov/health-care/health-needs-conditions/substance-use-problems/

Written by:

Content Manager

Jessica Miller is a USF graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. She has written professionally for over a decade, from HR scripts and employee training to business marketing and company branding. In addition to writing, Jessica spent time in the healthcare sector (HR) and as a high school teacher. She has personally experienced the pitfalls of addiction and is delighted to bring her knowledge and writing skills together to support our mission. Jessica lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband and two dogs.

3 references
  1. PTSD: National Center for PTSD. n.d. PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans. Retrieved from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/substance_abuse_vet.asp on December 26, 2021
  2. NIDA. 2019, October 23. Substance Use and Military Life DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-military-life on December 26, 2021
  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). 2020. 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Veteran Adults. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt31103/2019NSDUH-Veteran/Veterans%202019%20NSDUH.pdf on December 26, 2021.

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