For some service members and veterans, the stress of life in the military or the return to the civilian world — or even some elements of military culture — can lead to problems with drugs or alcohol.
If your drinking or 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 drug and alcohol problems — and reaching out for support to overcome them — is a sign of strength. It takes courage to seek treatment, but that step can be the first on your path to recovery.
Every veteran and service member has a different story, but many 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:
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, misuse with opioid painkillers is at a much higher level than civilian rates and 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.
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 is a common coping mechanism.
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.
Many veterans turn to drugs and alcohol during and after service, and it can be difficult to tell when substance use becomes a problem — especially in yourself. Generally, it’s time 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 signs of a drug problem or signs of an alcohol problem in yourself or a friend, it may be time to reach out for support.
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.
For veterans experiencing problems with substance misuse, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) 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.
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.
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 your personal experiences in coping after a traumatic experience.
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.
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.
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.