Understanding the Problem of Substance Use & Addiction in the Veteran Community

Most civilians only have a vague idea of what it’s like to serve in the military, and even vaguer ideas of what it’s like to adjust to a normal life afterward. However, transitioning from a structured military environment to a flexible, carefree routine is more difficult than you might realize. It may involve navigating new challenges and dealing with the aftermath of intense and often traumatic experiences that leave a lasting mark, leading many to use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.

At NorthStar Transitions, we’re taking a look at the challenges veterans face and why some are more prone to addiction as a result of their experiences. We also examine how specialized support can make an incredible difference as they leave military service and figure out how to build a satisfying and rewarding civilian life.

Challenges Faced by Veterans

Joining the military is more than just a job — it's an all-encompassing commitment that reshapes one’s identity and exposes individuals to high-stress and often life-threatening situations. These intense experiences don’t just vanish once service ends. They follow many veterans into their civilian lives, creating a unique set of psychological and emotional challenges that can predispose them to substance use disorders and addiction. 

The following factors are some of the biggest challenges individuals face as they leave the military and readjust to civilian life, collectively underscoring the pressing need for targeted interventions that support our veterans. 

Returning to Civilian Life

The transition from military to civilian life is often filled with emotional, psychological and social challenges. Veterans may find the everyday pace of civilian life lacks the same sense of urgency and camaraderie found in the military, and this stark contrast can lead to feelings of restlessness, dissatisfaction or a sense of being out of place, making it hard to adjust to a “new normal.”

Many veterans also find it difficult to re-enter the workforce. They may never have applied for a job, built a resume or interviewed for a position, especially if they had a career in the military. Learning these new skills and how to translate their military experience into what employers are looking for can be daunting, adding stress and worry to their transition back into civilian life. 

Exposure to Trauma

Veterans' experiences in the military often involve being exposed to life-threatening situations or witnessing events that challenge their mental and emotional resilience. This can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that profoundly affects an individual’s mental health and is closely linked with increased substance use. The symptoms of PTSD, such as hyperarousal, nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive memories and avoidance behaviors, can be so overwhelming that some veterans may turn to alcohol or drugs as a form of self-medication, attempting to alleviate their distress or numb their pain.

Dealing with unresolved trauma is a complex and multifaceted process, and many people struggle to find effective coping strategies. Substance use might initially provide a temporary escape from the disturbing memories and constant anxiety, but it often leads to a cycle of dependency and worsening mental health. With time, drugs or alcohol become a source of additional problems, creating a feedback loop that exacerbates PTSD symptoms and interferes with recovery, making it harder to let go and move past the trauma. 

Prescription Opioid Use

Chronic pain and injuries are common among veterans, often a direct result of their demanding and rigorous service. Opioids are frequently prescribed to manage this pain as they are effective at providing relief. However, the efficacy of these medications comes with the significant risk of addiction, especially when used over a long period or without adequate monitoring. The transition from taking opioids as prescribed to misusing them — or even dabbling with illicit opioids like heroin — can happen quickly, particularly when the underlying pain remains unresolved.

This risk is further increased with veterans because opioids not only alleviate physical pain but can also temporarily mask emotional and psychological distress. In attempting to cope with the physical aftermath of their service and the mental health challenges that can follow, some veterans might find themselves in a precarious situation where substance use becomes a key strategy for managing their overall well-being despite the inherent risks.

Lack of Support Networks

The camaraderie and fellowship experienced by those who have served are difficult to replicate outside of a military setting, and as a result, many veterans struggle with feeling lost or isolated after their service. This can create a disconnect with close friends or family members who might not fully understand their struggles or the nature of their experiences, leading to a profound sense of loneliness. In response, some may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope, which can quickly spiral into addiction, further complicating their return to civilian life.

The challenges of connecting with others can also make it harder to build a support network. Veterans might find it challenging to express their vulnerabilities or seek help, particularly in environments that do not fully recognize or understand the impact of their military experiences. However, this support is crucial for providing a buffer against the risks of addiction. Without these networks, veterans are at a higher risk of succumbing to the destructive cycles of substance use, underlining the importance of accessible, veteran-specific support systems that can provide the empathy, understanding and resources needed for a successful transition to civilian life.

The Stigma of Asking for Help

The stresses of deployment and military culture can increase the risk of substance use among active duty personnel. Despite protective factors like random drug testing, the possibility of dishonorable discharge and even criminal prosecution for a positive drug screen, deployment is often associated with risky behavior such as unhealthy drinking and drug use.

However, zero-tolerance policies and a lack of confidentiality can discourage many servicemen and women from getting treatment. One study published in the Journal of Social Work Practice In the Addictions examining the relationship between military combat deployments and substance use found that half of military personnel believe that seeking help for mental or behavioral health issues would negatively impact their military career. 

This stigma often persists among veterans even after they’re discharged, but without guardrails in place that discourage risky behaviors, substance use and mental health problems become even more of a concern as reported rates of drinking and drug use increase after leaving military service. According to the Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 65% of veterans admitted to rehab centers are treated for alcohol use, followed by heroin (10%) and cocaine (6%). 

Navigating the Path to Recovery

Veterans facing addiction may encounter several barriers when seeking effective treatment. The stigma surrounding substance use can be particularly pronounced in the military community, where there is a strong emphasis on discipline and self-reliance. This stigma can discourage many from getting the help they need. Additionally, there is a startling lack of programs tailored to the unique needs of veterans, which can hinder their path to recovery.

At NorthStar Transitions, we recognize the challenges faced by servicemen and women and offer a specialized treatment program designed for veterans and active duty personnel. This program acknowledges veterans' unique experiences and provides a supportive, understanding environment where they can heal. By focusing on the roots of addiction specific to the military community and leveraging evidence-based therapies, we help veterans and active duty personnel overcome the hurdles of accessing effective treatment. Our commitment to personalized care ensures that each veteran's voice is heard and addressed, facilitating a more meaningful and successful recovery journey.

Get Help Today

If you or a veteran you know is struggling with addiction, help is available. At NorthStar Transitions in Boulder, Colorado, we offer a compassionate, comprehensive approach to addiction treatment for veterans backed by a team of professionals committed to providing clients with the tools and resources necessary for a successful recovery. To learn more about our treatment programs, get in touch by completing our online contact form or calling us today at 866-407-2240.

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