Overview of Veterans and Addiction
Addiction, also referred to as substance use disorder (SUD), causes people to have a difficult time controlling their use of alcohol, opioids, and other substances.
Veterans face various challenges that put them at risk of developing SUD.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 1 in every 10 veterans has been diagnosed with a substance use disorder. This number is slightly higher than the general population.
Here are some other veteran substance abuse statistics:
- Male veterans aged 18-25 are especially at risk for developing SUD.
- Alcohol abuse is the most common type of substance use disorder (SUD) among veterans.
- About 10% of veterans who fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and have been seen by the VA have a drug or alcohol problem.
Why Are Veterans At Risk of Abusing Alcohol or Drugs?
Veterans deal with unique issues that may make them more prone to lean on alcohol or drugs during difficult times.
Here are 6 potential reasons why veterans may abuse alcohol or drugs:
- Chronic pain: Veterans often experience chronic pain due to service-related injuries and are at risk of becoming addicted to opioids and other painkillers.
- Difficult life situations: Veterans are at an increased risk of unemployment and homelessness and may turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with these or other hardships.
- Mental health issues: Veterans may turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate for PTSD, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, or other combat-related mental health problems they may be experiencing.
- Military culture: The military values toughness and encourages service members to be strong and hide weaknesses. As a result, veterans may use drugs and alcohol instead of talking about their problems or seeking help from a licensed therapist.
- Past traumatic events: Those who experienced or witnessed traumatic events during combat or while being deployed may cope by drinking or using drugs.
- Readjustment issues: Veterans may have difficulty returning to civilian life after fighting in a war or a long deployment. They may become isolated and withdrawn and use drugs or alcohol out of boredom or as a way to cope with loneliness.
Despite these risk factors, veterans and their loved ones should never give up hope, as many veterans can and do recover from addiction every year in the U.S.
Warning Signs of Veterans Substance Abuse
It can be challenging to recognize the signs and symptoms of substance abuse in someone you love. It may be even harder if it’s a veteran who may have a mental health condition or who is trying to hide their struggle so they don’t appear weak.
Signs and symptoms of substance use in veterans include:
- Acting more withdrawn or isolating themselves from loved ones
- Combining drinking with risky behaviors, such as drinking and driving
- Engaging in drug or alcohol use that affects relationships with friends or family members
- Experiencing changes in sleeping or eating habits
- Inability to stop using drugs or alcohol, even when they know they should
- Increased use of drugs or alcohol
- Participating in risky substance-related behaviors, such as binge drinking or combining multiple substances
- Talking about drugs or alcohol more frequently
If you recognize these symptoms in a veteran you love, encourage them to get help.
The VA offers a confidential online questionnaire for veterans questioning whether they may have a problem with alcohol or drugs.
Treatment Options for Veterans With Substance Abuse Problems
Veterans have many options when it comes to getting treatment for a substance use disorder.
VA Recovery Services
Veterans can access several addiction treatment services directly through the VA.
Recovery services offered by the VA include:
- Counseling and therapy, including inpatient and outpatient therapy, partial hospitalization, group therapy, and relapse prevention support
- Medication options, including medical detox and medication-assisted treatment
- Treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions, such as PTSD or depression
If you’re thinking about getting help for substance abuse and are already using VA health care, the VA suggests that you ask your primary care provider to assist you in making an appointment for VA mental health services.
If you’re not already using VA health care, you can check the VA Treatment Locator to locate VA care facilities near you. The VA’s SUD Program Locator can help you find specialized SUD programs in your state.
Veterans in crisis and their loved ones can get 24/7 support through the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 988 and then pressing 1, texting 838255, or using the chat feature. You don’t have to be enrolled in VA benefits or health care to get support.
Tip: Many local veteran centers and VA-based community outpatient clinics also provide treatment for substance abuse.
Private Substance Abuse Programs for Veterans
Outside of the VA, there are private veteran-specific recovery programs located throughout the United States.
Veteran-specific recovery programs include:
- Emmanuel House in Detroit, Michigan: Provides substance abuse help for male and female veterans and reports an 85% success rate.
- Heroes’ Mile in Deland, Florida: Created by veterans, this program offers inpatient, outpatient, and partial hospitalization programs for veterans battling addiction.
You can also search for treatment at FindTreatment.gov. The site, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), is a confidential resource for locating treatment centers across the U.S.
You can search for facilities by state and county and filter to find VA facilities, as well as facilities that accept Medicaid, offer telemedicine, provide outpatient services, and more.
Types of Treatment for Veteran Drug Abuse & Addiction
There are many ways that veterans can get the help they need and recover from an alcohol or drug use disorder.
Different types of veterans addiction services are listed below. In many cases, veterans may benefit from multiple types of help.
Inpatient treatment, also known as residential treatment, allows veterans to live onsite while getting help and receive 24/7 supervision and support for substance abuse.
These programs can be short-term, typically under 30 days, or long-term, lasting several months and even up to a year at some locations.
Outpatient treatment offers many of the same services as inpatient treatment, such as therapy, peer support, and detox, but on a less intensive level.
This type of service is often best for veterans seeking treatment while working or living at home with their families.
Dual Diagnosis Care
Dual diagnosis care addresses any mental health conditions that are co-occurring along with a veteran’s substance abuse.
Mental health disorders that commonly occur with substance abuse include:
- Anxiety disorders
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Eating disorders
Veterans are more likely to suffer PTSD than civilians, and many try to cope by drinking alcohol or using drugs. Sadly, veterans with PTSD and substance abuse problems are at an increased risk of homelessness, suicide, and other unfortunate outcomes.
Here are some statistics about PTSD and substance abuse in veterans:
- More than 20% of veterans with PTSD also have SUD.
- Nearly 1 of every 3 veterans seeking help for SUD also has PTSD.
- About 10% of veterans who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan seen at the VA have a drug or alcohol problem.
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is a type of treatment that veterans can receive in either outpatient or inpatient settings and that’s considered a long-term detox program.
This type of treatment, typically used for treating opioid use disorders, uses opioid-replacement medications like methadone to help people come off these drugs slowly over weeks or months.
Drug and Alcohol Detox
Detox allows veterans to stop their drug or alcohol use in a manner that is safe and comfortable for them, and which is less likely to result in relapse.
Detox is often medically monitored, meaning that the patient is given medications under a doctor’s supervision to help them stop using the drugs safely.
Behavioral therapy can be very effective as it can help veterans manage the relationship between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Veterans can access different types of therapy through the VA or find a private therapist or counselor who can help with addiction issues.
Support groups allow veterans to share their recovery journey with others in a similar situation.
Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are open to the general population, but there are also veteran-specific support groups.
The VA-sponsored website Make the Connection allows veterans to read stories about other service members who are in recovery.
Veterans Addiction Help Costs
The cost of drug and alcohol treatment for veterans depends on several factors, but it is often free or low-cost.
Factors that affect the cost of addiction treatment for veterans include:
- Level of care or type of treatment
- Length of treatment or stay in a residential program
- Location of the facility
- Specific insurance or benefits the veteran qualifies for
- Types of services and amenities the facility offers
- Whether the facility is partnered with the VA
- Whether the facility offers any income-based assistance
Does the VA Cover Addiction Treatment?
Yes, the VA covers addiction treatment costs in a few different ways. For example, the agency provides qualifying veterans with health care and disability benefits and offers VA-sponsored treatment programs.
Treatment may not always be covered in full, however, as veterans may qualify for different benefits depending on their plan, disability rating, and other factors.