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Tackling physical and mental challenges of service takes strength and perseverance. But those challenges can put you at greater risk of experiencing opioid and substance problems. 

If drug use becomes excessive and more habitual over time, it is important to think about how it is affecting your life. It’s never too late to take control of your well-being. Confronting a drug or alcohol problem — and reaching out for support to overcome it — is a sign of strength. 

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Common challenges

Everyone has a different story, but many veterans face similar challenges while serving in the military and while transitioning back to civilian life. During both periods, some people may turn to drugs or alcohol as a means of relieving stress or seeking pleasure. Here are some common challenges that veterans and service members may face:

Environmental factors

In the military, celebrating, passing the time, or easing pain with alcohol or prescription drugs can be common occurrences. While illicit drug use rates are commonly lower in the military due to drug testing, service members misuse prescription drugs, including opioid painkillers, at a higher rate than civilians, and that rate is on the rise. Many people associate rowdy and raucous behavior with military culture, and it can be difficult to identify addiction or alcohol dependency, especially in yourself, when you’re surrounded by people who may regularly drink or use drugs.

Traumatic events

Military experience can leave service members with psychological as well as physical wounds, even as they transition back to civilian life. According to the National Institutes of Health, 1 in 4 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms of a mental or cognitive disorder, while 1 in 6 reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Conditions like PTSD have a strong association with substance misuse. According to the National Center for PTSD, more than 20 percent of veterans with PTSD have developed a substance use disorder. Service members may also be affected by military sexual trauma after experiencing a sexual assault. For survivors of sexual violence, substance use can be a coping mechanism.

Expectations and career pressure

Opioids, alcohol, and tobacco can seem like easy solutions to the stress of a military lifestyle. In fact, the National Institutes of Health estimates that 47 percent of active duty service members binge-drink, and 30 percent of all service members are current smokers. These rates are even higher among those who have been exposed to combat. In an environment where many personnel are exposed to life-threatening situations, it’s not surprising that rates of substance use are higher among veterans and service members than among civilians.

Signs of a problem

A physical dependency on opioid painkillers can form quickly because the body gets used to the dulled sense the drugs create; also, after finishing a prescription or reducing use, some patients may begin to experience symptoms of withdrawal. Without these drugs, pain can seem just as bad as it was before starting a prescription — or may feel even worse. Patients may experience agitation, anxiety, cramping, muscle aches, nausea, and vomiting. These symptoms should be treated under a doctor’s care, but some patients instead self-medicate by continuing — and increasing — their use of opioids, even after their original prescriptions have run out. If you notice any of the following behavioral changes in yourself or a loved one while taking prescription opioid painkillers, consider reaching out for support:

  • Taking pills in greater amounts or more frequently than prescribed
  • Increasing the daily dosage of a prescription and finishing it early
  • Using another person’s prescription drugs
  • Mixing pain pills with other substances like alcohol, illegal drugs, or other pharmaceuticals, whether prescribed or available over the counter
  • “Doctor shopping” — visiting multiple doctors and pharmacies — to obtain multiple prescriptions

In general, it’s cause for concern when drug or alcohol use interferes with your daily life: your relationships, your job, or the activities that keep your life on track. If you notice other signs of a drug or alcohol problem in yourself or a friend, it may be time to reach out to a health professional for support.

Treatment

When dealing with opioid addictions, some doctors will suggest medication-assisted treatment, which can help alleviate the severe symptoms of withdrawal. NIH research has shown that medication-assisted treatment can be very effective in helping people overcome opioid use disorder. Other approaches include support groups, behavioral therapies, and rehab. Talk to your physician and consider all your options when treating pain. Non-opiate options may be as effective as prescription painkillers in relieving the pain — and may also reduce side effects and remove the risk of chemical dependency that is associated with opioid painkillers. These options include:

  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Medications for depression or for seizures
  • Interventional therapies
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Physical therapy and exercise

Support for service members and veterans

You don’t have to deal with drug or alcohol problems alone. Many resources are available to military personnel and veterans, offering substance abuse prevention specialists, counseling centers, or other mental health resources for support.

Department of Veterans Affairs

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a specialized opioid treatment program and facilities around the country. You can use VA’s resource locator to find a local facility. Or your health insurance provider can connect you with a recovery program, such as inpatient rehab or outpatient therapy. Working with a health care professional can help you manage withdrawal symptoms during the detox phase of recovery (getting the drugs or alcohol out of your system) and learn ways to manage cravings. VA health care providers can refer veterans to long-term resources that have worked for others or identify effective support groups. Your local Vet Center can be a helpful starting point for finding support and starting your recovery.

Military Health System

Detecting problems with substance use early can help increase the chances of successful treatment. Health.mil has a page dedicated to pointing out signs of a substance use problem along with links to support programs tailored to specific service branches.

National Center for PTSD

Drinking and drug use are common ways to cope with bad memories and traumatic events from military experiences or other major life events. The National Center for PTSD is a great resource for learning about the latest research findings and consulting with professionals about coping after a traumatic experience.

Drug Take Back Program

The Military Health System established the Drug Take Back Program to help beneficiaries properly dispose of their prescriptions and over-the-counter medications. The program is available at all military treatment facility pharmacies in the United States.

Make the Connection

VA’s Make the Connection campaign enables veterans, service members, and their family members and friends to hear stories from fellow veterans who have coped with difficult life experiences, mental health challenges, and substance use issues. The Make the Connection website features a video gallery of hundreds of veterans talking about how they recognized their problems, found support, and got better. There is a story on the site that every service member and veteran can relate to, along with information on VA and community-based sources of support.

Veterans Crisis Line

Whether you’re concerned about your personal safety or the safety of a friend or family member who is in crisis, the Veterans Crisis Line will connect you with qualified, caring responders through a toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. This confidential support service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Get support by finding local resources and support centers.