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It’s one thing to struggle with substance abuse, but things can be even more challenging for military veterans.


Why is this?


Well, substance use disorder is often rooted in emotional trauma. Many veterans, once they leave the services, are confronted with entirely different battles to combat. Often, they turn to substances as a coping mechanism.


Types of Substance Use Disorder in Veterans

Veterans and substance abuse

Of veterans who end up in the healthcare system, 11% have a substance use disorder (SUD).


Alcohol and nicotine are the most commonly abused substances among ex-service members according to the same study.


Heavy alcohol use is the cultural norm in the military services, although the military is trying to discourage this.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, opioid painkillers and other prescription pills are also abused by some veterans.


So, we know veterans are prone to suffering from substance abuse, and we know that alcohol is particularly troublesome.


Why should this be the case, though?


5 Causes of Substance Use Disorder in Veterans

Veterans with substance use disorders tend to be young white, single males.


While this demographic is most likely to abuse substances in general, the chances of SUD are even higher among veterans.


We’ll now highlight 5 core causes of substance abuse among veterans.


  1. Difficulty Adjusting Back to Civilian Life
  2. Emotional Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences
  3. Mental Health Disorders
  4. Reluctance to Seek Help
  5. Problems Reintegrating


1) Difficulty Adjusting Back to Civilian Life

veterans have difficulty adjusting to civilian life

It is common for veterans to experience some uncomfortable emotions when returning to civilian life.


While most veterans manage to reintegrate successfully, some sadly find this transition especially jarring.


As with any uncomfortable emotions experienced in life, reaching for a bottle, pill, or powder sometimes seems like the easiest way to cope.


2) Emotional Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences

Some veterans initially joined the military to escape abusive situations at home. Some may have been subjected to some form of child abuse.


It’s well documented that people who experience adverse childhood experiences tend to develop mental health disorders and addictions in later life.


3) Mental Health Disorders

A veteran suffering from substance abuse talking with a therapist

Mental health disorders increase the likelihood of addiction, and veterans experience high rates of mental health disorders including:


  • Combat stress
  • Depression
  • PTSD
  • Traumatic brain injury


4) Reluctance to Seek Help

Military service members are often reluctant to seek medical assistance for mental health disorders. Many view this as a sign of weakness and fear it will affect their job prospects. This in turn can compound a drug or alcohol problem and exacerbate and cycle of addiction. Even when no longer in active service, this attitude is surprisingly prevalent.


The Stand Together organization is dedicated to educating veterans that reaching out is a sign of strength, not weakness.


Reaching out is a sign that you have the courage and strength to confront your inner battles and deal with them like a warrior. By opening up and discussing your innermost fears and emotional scars it is possible to overcome painful thoughts and memories and so deal with cravings for substances much easier.


Sometimes re framing things and looking at them differently is all it takes to make a breakthrough.


5) Problems Reintegrating

A man thinking while taking a break during his hike

Some veterans find the abrupt and dramatic change in lifestyle can topple their sense of self. This can spill out into their lives in the form of substance abuse.


Suddenly finding themselves without a mission to fulfill, many find the adjustment anxiety-inducing. These feelings can lead to self-medicating with alcohol or prescription drugs.


Substance use is a coping mechanism for when difficult emotions arise. Unless a person has the insight and knowledge to transform negative thought patterns, dependence can easily escalate into full-blown addiction.


Sobering reading so far but now for the vital part: how to move forward and embrace the challenging but rewarding road to recovery.


Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted treatment is generally advisable for anyone intending to detox from alcohol use disorder. Prescription medicines like benzodiazepines help to relax the central nervous system and prevent it from going into shock when alcohol is abruptly withdrawn.


Medication-assisted treatment also incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This helps a person in recovery to identify the causes of negative thought patterns and to develop healthy coping strategies to prevent relapse. Practicing CBT with a therapist can help you drill down into your thoughts and feelings and identify the source of your anxiety, depression, or PTSD.



A group meeting where individuals are talking about the future of addiction treatment

Many people with PTSD benefit greatly from cognitive behavioral therapy.


EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) can also be highly effective.


Support Groups

Many veterans manage to overcome mental health problems and addictions by utilizing specifically developed resources to work on the issues causing substance use.


Here are 2 superb organizations that veterans can turn to in times of need:


  • Make The Connection
  • Moving Forward


Make The Connection

Make The Connection is an online resource created by the US Department of Veteran Affairs. The website is packed with videos of veterans who have sought help for various problems including substance use disorders.


There are also abundant opportunities for veterans, friends, and families to connect with others who are experiencing the same difficulties. Find inspiring stories of veterans who have successfully vanquished mental health issues and substance abuse after retirement.


Moving Forward

Moving Forward is an online course designed by veterans for veterans. Study is self-paced and you can use a smart phone, a tablet, a laptop or a desktop.


The curriculum covers topics such as:


  • Adjustment problems
  • Coping with injuries
  • Dealing with relationship problems
  • Financial difficulties
  • Managing school and family commitments
  • Stress management


Heal with Honesty and Openness

Veteran Healing With His Wife

If you are a veteran or your loved one is a veteran struggling with a substance use disorder, there’s plenty of help available. Reaching out and speaking with a licensed therapist can help you confront the emotional difficulties underpinning any substance use disorder.


It’s crucial to realize that being open and honest is absolutely the best approach to dealing with these pressing issues head-on. Holding toxic thoughts and feelings inside will only compound any anxiety or depression. It could even trigger a relapse.


What To Do Next

Remember, many veterans have overcome huge obstacles of addiction and mental health disorders by being honest and confronting their emotions. If you can have faith in others and yourself, you have a good chance of a successful recovery


About the Author


Landmark Recovery Staff

This post was written by a Landmark Recovery staff member. If you have any questions, please contact us at 888-448-0302.

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