What Causes Drug Addiction In Veterans?

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Veterans are at high risk for drug and alcohol addiction. Drugs and alcohol may be used to cope with depression, chronic pain, or other issues related to veteran life. Over time, substance abuse can develop into an addiction, which may require treatment.

Causes Of Addiction In Veterans

U.S. veterans are at heightened risk for developing substance abuse problems, particularly alcohol abuse and addiction to prescription painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone.

What causes drug addiction in veterans, however, is often tied to multiple factors. Veterans can face unique issues that place them at higher risk for substance abuse, including PTSD.

Ultimately, what causes the development of drug addiction in a veteran will depend on individual risk factors, as well as available resources and their existing support system.

Common Causes Of Drug Addiction In Veterans

Veteran substance abuse is a prevalent issue in the United States. In 2019, about 1.3 million veterans had a past-year substance use disorder, up from 1.1 million a year prior.

Causes of drug addiction, both in veterans and the general population, can be complex. Here are some common issues believed to influence drug addiction among veterans:

Injury And Pain

Veterans are commonly prescribed pain medications for injuries sustained from their time in service. Unfortunately, some of the most common pain medications are also highly addictive.

This includes drugs such as:

  • oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
  • hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • oxymorphone (Opana)
  • tramadol (Ultram)
  • fentanyl
  • codeine

Opioid medications can effectively relieve pain. However, they are also known to have powerful euphoric effects and may be misused alone or in combination with other drugs.

Both physical and emotional pain, as well as overprescribing practices, can increase the risk of veterans turning to drugs or alcohol to numb, relax, or self-manage high levels of pain.

Mental Health Disorders

Mental health disorders, such as depression, have a strong connection to drug and alcohol abuse. They’re also commonly experienced by active duty members and veterans.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 3.1 million veterans had a mental illness in 2019, and 481,000 had both a mental illness and substance use disorder.

Mental health and substance use disorders share common risk factors—such as difficulty coping with life troubles, lack of social support, history of trauma, and chronic pain.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) shares that about one in three veterans who seek treatment for alcohol or drug abuse also have PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD is a condition that can develop as a result of a traumatic experience. Among veterans, this might include wartime combat, witnessing death, suffering severe injury, or sexual assault.

Common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • recurring nightmares
  • flashbacks (i.e. reliving events)
  • heightened reactions
  • aggression
  • self-harm
  • suicidal thoughts
  • memory problems
  • intense guilt or shame

Left untreated, PTSD can cause extreme mental and emotional distress. In some cases, people who experience PTSD symptoms may turn to alcohol or drugs in order to cope.

Moral Injury

Moral injury is a term used to describe a specific form of trauma that can develop as a result of witnessing, behaving, or failing to act in ways that violate a person’s deeply held values.

For instance, killing a civilian, or failing to prevent an atrocity such as sexual assault, or within-rank violence during one’s service.

This phenomenon of moral injury, as well as associated consequences such as depression, risk of suicide, and substance use has largely been studied among war veterans before and post-9/11.

Readjusting To Civilian Life

The shift from active duty to civilian life can be a jarring experience for veterans, particularly in the absence of a strong support system or without structure to replace that which has been lost.

This period, commonly referred to as a readjustment period or reintegration, can be harder for some than others. Some veterans may become depressed, hopeless, and turn to alcohol or drugs to cope.

General Risk Factors

Substance abuse is associated with a number of environmental and personal risk factors in the general population that can also apply to U.S. veterans.

For instance, common risk factors for substance abuse include:

  • high stress
  • unemployment
  • homelessness
  • family history of addiction
  • using drugs at an early age
  • loneliness
  • taking addictive drugs
  • poor impulse control

Often, what really causes drug addiction is a mix of several of these factors. This is true for veterans, as well as military dependents, military spouses, and the general civilian population.

How Common Is Drug Addiction In Veterans?

About one in 15 veterans in the U.S. have a substance use disorder, according to an estimate from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

According to 2019 national survey data:

  • Over one million veterans have an alcohol use disorder
  • About 2.9 percent, or 595,000 veterans report misusing prescription or illicit opioids
  • About 0.7 percent, or 139,000 veterans meet the criteria for opioid use disorder
  • About 233,000 veterans have used cocaine
  • Six million U.S. veterans have reported using marijuana

Substance Abuse Treatment For Veterans

Many veterans with substance use disorder can access substance abuse treatment through the VA health system, or elsewhere through a rehab center or other treatment provider.

A number of treatment programs as well as employment assistance, help with housing, and other resources for veterans are available.

Common treatment services for drug abuse include:

  • detoxification
  • cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • contingency management
  • group therapy
  • medication-assisted treatment
  • trauma counseling
  • self-help groups
  • residential treatment
  • intensive outpatient treatment

Getting Help For Veteran Substance Abuse

If you or a loved one is a veteran with a drug or drinking problem, you can find drug addiction treatment that’s right for you.

Call our helpline today to learn more about how to find veteran substance abuse treatment for yourself, a friend, or a veteran family member.


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