Veteran Substance Abuse Statistics

Veterans exposed to severe traumatic events, death, combat, and military sexual trauma carry with them an intense level of pain, raw emotion, flashbacks, nightmares, and never-ending memories they wish they could forget. Yet, the military community holds on to its long-standing history of not showing any personal weakness. Overlooking alcohol to numb the pain or a few extra pills to feel better opens the development of harmful coping mechanisms and veteran substance abuse. 

Veterans injured and hospitalized in combat or who have experienced trauma are at elevated risk of substance use disorders and are 3 to 4 times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

  • From 2003 to 2009 there was a 56% increase in soldiers seeking treatment for alcohol dependence
  • A 2008 study showed 13.8 % of veterans who had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were diagnosed with PTSD
  • In 2009 military doctors prescribed 3.8 million prescriptions for painkillers
  • 20% of service members admitted to at least one occurrence of binge drinking per week and those with combat exposure had a higher incidence
  • 23% of women in the military reported military sexual trauma and often developed PTSD
  • 63% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with a substance use disorder met the criteria for PTSD and other mental illnesses

Why Do Veterans Turn to Substance Abuse?

Significant life adjustments such as training, deployments, moving, and separation from family are everyday stressors challenging soldiers and their families. The military does their best to ready soldiers for combat and the traumas they will witness, but it is hard to prepare the brain for war’s extreme pressures and demands. Unable to find a way to cope with the unimaginable, soldiers reach out for alcohol or drugs to relieve their stress. Inability to express extreme emotions and distressing feelings veteran substance abuse develops without an awareness of the danger.

Challenges adding to the development of veteran substance abuse:

  • Availability of prescriptions medications customarily prescribed for injuries or depression
  • Readjustment to life after the military trying to fit in after being away from friends and family
  • Genetic predispositions, undiagnosed mental illnesses, homelessness
  • Dysfunctional family life, problems finding civilian work, and loss of friendships within the military 

Nearly 25% of veterans develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) linked to the traumatic experiences of military personnel. The symptoms of PTSD are challenging to cope with and give an added reason to reach out for drugs and alcohol for relief. What was once called battle fatigue or being “shell shocked” is now known as PTSD. It is hard to differentiate which problem came first – PTSD or substance use disorder (SUD). Those with PTSD have a more difficult recovery if veteran substance abuse is co-occurring and could lead to relapse. 

Symptoms of PTSD can trigger veterans to reach out for alcohol, drugs, or both:

  • Flashbacks and memory problems
  • Relationship problems and aggression
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Hopelessness and fear
  • Low self-esteem
  • Self-destructive behaviors

Statistics of Veteran Substance Abuse

Treatment for PTSD and substance use disorder has improved over the years. Studies of PTSD, SUD’s, and other mental illnesses have increased over the years to improve the capture of statistics of veteran substance abuse. Veterans seeking help with the VA who have a SUD might also experience:

  • 80% abuse alcohol
  • 27% use illegal drugs
  • 7% abuse both alcohol and drugs

Drug usage among veterans can include abuse of prescription opioids and illicit drug abuse:

  • 2.3 million veterans report using marijuana in the past year
  • Almost 11% of veterans were admitted to treatment centers for addiction to heroin
  • 6% of veterans are reported to have received treatment for cocaine usage
  • Male veterans are twice as likely to develop a substance use disorder
  • Hydrocodone (Norco, Vicodin) is the most widely abused prescription drug 

What Keeps Veterans from Asking for Help?

A large percentage of veterans experiencing veteran substance abuse avoid seeking help with the VA because of the long delays and difficulties establishing coverage. It is important to seek immediate help for extreme symptoms of PTSD and SUD. Seventy percent of homeless veterans have a substance use disorder. Veterans abusing alcohol have a higher rate of experiencing relationship dysfunction, which might lead to domestic violence. 

Addicted veterans experience severe withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop abusing drugs and alcohol. Brain chemistry is disrupted and fooled by the effects of the abused substance. Chemical dependence produces uncomfortable physical symptoms when a person suddenly stops using drugs or alcohol. These withdrawal symptoms are a significant reason why veteran substance abuse is so hard to overcome without treatment.

Withdrawal symptoms lead to the following issues: 

  • Withdrawal from alcohol can lead to depression, irritability, anxiety, fatigue
  • Delirium tremens is a disorder caused by extreme alcohol abuse can lead to fever, hallucinations, seizures
  • Benzodiazepine withdrawal can cause sleep disturbances, anxiety, irritability
  • Opioid withdrawal has extremely uncomfortable symptoms including insomnia, muscle aches, agitation, digestive issues

Addiction Treatment Options for Veterans

Traditional rehab programs offer help in treatment to vets experiencing veteran substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders. Substance use disorders and mental illness do not just disappear on their own. Veterans have more options than non-military citizens seeking treatment for substance use disorders. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers options for treatment as a covered medical expense. Treatment options with the VA can include:

  • One on one and family counseling options
  • Inpatient and outpatient rehab
  • Group therapy
  • Treatment for PTSD
  • Medications needed for withdrawal

Private detox centers and rehab facilities welcome veterans for treatment within their facilities and have professional staff who have specialized training in veteran substance abuse experiences and mental illnesses. Private centers offer modern therapies which VA facilities might not have but have proven to be very effective in treatment. 

Substance Abuse Treatment for Veterans

The bravest thing you can do is reach out for help for addiction and mental health issues. If you are experiencing veteran substance abuse and are looking for help, contact us to answer any questions you may have in finding treatment options. Sunrise Veterans Health has addiction and mental health professionals who can answer your questions. Call us or visit our admissions page to speak to a representative who can help you today. 

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