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The Truth About Addiction in the Military Population

The connection between military service and substance use is intricate and multifaceted. It stems from the requirement for resilience in response to trauma, the bonding experience of camaraderie, and the harsh reality of chronic pain resulting from service-related injuries. Military culture often discourages the open expression of emotional pain, emphasizing strength and stoicism instead. This can inadvertently create an environment where self-medication with drugs or alcohol becomes prevalent.

Veterans and active-duty military face situations that differ from what civilians normally see. Substances often provide an easy escape from difficult memories, emotions, and thoughts. Read on to find out why military personnel, past and present, are so prone to addiction and how it can destroy lives.

The Dangers of Drug and Alcohol Misuse in the Military 

There is a direct correlation between deployment and drug use, drinking unhealthily, and related risky behavior. Rates of binge drinking are high compared to the general population, with reports of more than 1 in 3 service members engaging in binge drinking regularly compared to 1 in 6 adults in the general population. 

Penalties put in place by the US military, such as zero-tolerance policies, compromised confidentiality, and enforced random drug testing, may decrease the use of drugs, but they can also create stigma. 

The threat of these policies could put many military personnel off seeking support. Sixty percent of military personnel who experience mental health problems do not seek help. Many of them think asking for help would negatively affect their careers. 

There are also high-stake consequences for the person with an addiction and those around them. Drug or alcohol misuse and addiction can seriously impair performance and endanger personnel. They affect the ability to make rational decisions and retain new information. In an active warzone, this delay in processing is even more dangerous and can lead to deadly consequences.


The Unique Risks of Addiction Within the Military

Military service members and veterans meet situations that can be hard to handle, increasing the chances of turning to substance. Combat, subsequent psychological distress, injury, and discharge are critical factors that play a role in the high rate of substance abuse.

For many in the military, drinking is part of the culture and a way to cope with the challenges of life in the armed forces. Alcohol is typically available at a discounted price on military bases, making ease of access another troubling factor to take into account.

Several critical issues related to substance use have a significant impact on the veteran population, too. These include: 

• Severe pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

• A higher risk of suicide 

• A propensity to experience homelessness


Opioid Misuse and Addiction in Military Personnel

Opioid misuse within the military and veteran populations has become a critical public health concern in the United States. The intense physical demands of military service and the high rate of injury-related pain lead to a prevalence of pain relief prescriptions, which can result in dependency and misuse. While opioid prescription rates have gone down in the past few years, veteran opioid overdose rates have increased by 53% from 2010 to 2019. Additionally, veterans are reportedly twice as likely to die from accidental overdoses than civilians, highlighting the severe impact of opioid misuse in this population.

The transition from military to civilian life also presents significant stressors that can worsen the risk of opioid misuse among veterans. A study by the American Public Health Association found that veterans who experience chronic pain, mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or who have sustained injuries during service are at a heightened risk of developing opioid use disorders. As a result, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has implemented the Opioid Safety Initiative (OSI) to improve pain management strategies among veterans and reduce dependency on opioids. Despite these efforts, the VA reported that over 61,000 veterans had an opioid use disorder in 2019. 

These numbers underscore the need for continued focus on effective pain management, substance misuse prevention, and comprehensive treatment programs tailored specifically for military service members and veterans.

Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Alcohol abuse in the military and veteran populations is an issue that significantly impacts the readiness and well-being of service members and veterans alike. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2019, an estimated 5.5% of veterans had a substance use disorder related to alcohol. The Department of Defense’s Health-Related Behaviors Survey of Active Duty Military Personnel in 2015 reported that approximately 30% of active-duty personnel were binge drinkers, and 5.4% were heavy drinkers

Moreover, the VA acknowledges that alcohol abuse is prevalent among service members and veterans who may use alcohol to cope with stress, PTSD, and the challenges of transitioning to civilian life. These behaviors not only pose health risks but also affect family dynamics, job performance, and can lead to legal issues. This concerning pattern has prompted military and veteran health programs to amplify resources and support systems for those struggling with alcohol use, including counseling and treatment services, to promote healthier lifestyles and reduce the incidence of alcohol-related harm within these communities.

The Consequences of Addiction and Substance Abuse

When military members and veterans struggle with addiction and substance abuse, they can face some pretty tough consequences that make life harder for them and their families. Here are some of the major issues they might run into:

  • Health Problems: Substance abuse can lead to serious health issues like heart disease, liver problems, or even brain damage.
  • Mental Health Challenges: Addiction can make mental health problems worse, like PTSD or depression, which a lot of veterans deal with.
  • Trouble With the Law: Getting involved with drugs or alcohol can sometimes mean breaking the law, which can lead to arrests or even time in jail.
  • Strained Relationships: Addiction can cause a lot of arguments and trust issues with family and friends, which isn’t good for anyone.

Military and veterans need to get the help they need because beating addiction can turn these problems around and lead to a healthier, happier life.


Increased Risk of Suicide and Homelessness 

The number of suicide-related deaths among veterans and active duty military is far higher than within the general population. In 2020, an average of 17 veterans committed suicide every day.

Addiction and substance use often precede suicidal behavior in the military. There is also a greater incidence of high-risk behavior deaths caused by excess alcohol or drug overdose.

Research carried out in 2017 found that out of more than 120,000 veterans, those getting the greatest doses of opioid pain-relieving drugs were more than twice as likely to die as a result of suicide. That’s when compared to those receiving the lowest amounts. 

About 11 percent of homeless adults are US military veterans, and around 70 percent of them also have an addiction or substance use disorder. The disease of addiction is hard to overcome. It is overwhelming when stripped of a helping hand and resources such as food, water, and shelter.


Combatting Addiction in the Military and Among Veterans

Veterans and active-duty military members face distinct challenges due to their unique service experiences, such as combat exposure and deployment stress, leading to specific mental health issues like PTSD, which is often linked with substance use disorders. 

Specialized addiction treatment for veterans and active-duty military, such as our Hero’s Path program, is crucial as it addresses these military-related traumas and provides a supportive network of peers who share similar experiences. By integrating evidence-based, trauma-informed approaches and peer support, such tailored rehabilitation ensures relevant, sensitive, and effective care, honoring their service with the respect and efficacy essential for fostering long-term recovery.

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