Veterans Substance Abuse

The extreme mental and physical stress service members may experience can, unfortunately, lead to substance abuse and addiction. Some people try to cope with the stress and other emotions by “self-medicating” with drugs or alcohol. However, drug and alcohol abuse only worsen an already unhealthy situation.

In other cases, doctors may prescribe painkillers like morphine, oxycodone, and Percocet to treat physical ailments. These potent and highly addictive medications can leave Veterans dependent on them. As a result, substance abuse in the military has become much more common.

Substance Abuse Among Active-Duty Personnel vs. Veterans

The unique culture of the military, coupled with the stresses of service, provides both risk and protective factors for substance abuse among active-duty personnel. Deployment is associated with smoking, unhealthy drinking, drug use, and risky behaviors in general. However, the military has a zero-tolerance policy for the use of illicit substances, which can help curb abuse.

All branches conduct mandatory drug testing, offer programs for the treatment of drug and alcohol problems, and provide education and resources for assistance. The military may also punish violations with Article 15/UCMJ action, criminal prosecution, or dishonorable discharge.

Overall, illicit drug use among active-duty personnel is relatively low, according to the National Institutes of Health. The misuse of prescription drugs has also decreased, perhaps due to heightened awareness of the nation’s opioid crisis. But, comparatively, rates of binge drinking among the military are higher compared to the general population.

Removing the Guardrails

However, once service members leave the military, they oftentimes lose some protective influence and their support system. Substance abuse and mental health have become a greater concern. More than 10% of Veterans have been diagnosed with substance use disorder (SUD).

Overall, the prevalence of substance use disorders among male Veterans was lower than rates among their civilian counterparts when all ages were considered. However, for Veterans aged 18-25, the rate of SUD was higher compared to civilians. Substance use is linked to an increased risk of homelessness, problems with relationships and work, and suicide.

Complicating matters is the stigma associated with seeking help for addiction. This risk deters many Veterans from seeking help. Half of active-duty military personnel said they believe seeking help would hurt their military career.

Rates of Substance Abuse Among Veterans

Approximately 11% of Veterans who visit a VA medical facility for the first time have SUD. Many turn to alcohol and drugs to cope with the transition to civilian life or to manage pain or mental health disorders related to their time in service.

Nearly 900,000 Veterans (over 80%) abuse alcohol. Binge drinking is one of the more common issues.

About 300,000 Veterans (nearly 27%) abuse illegal drugs.

Almost 80,000 Veterans (about 7%) abuse both illicit drugs and alcohol

Alcoholism Among Veterans

Binge drinking is common among active-duty personnel and can evolve into alcoholism. Veterans who abuse alcohol are more likely to commit acts of violence, suffer from negative health consequences, and have a shorter lifespan. Nearly twice the number of Veterans enter treatment programs for alcohol abuse compared to their civilian counterparts.

Drug Use Among Veterans

Veterans may suffer from substance abuse problems related to using both prescription and illegal drugs.

Veterans may use prescription drugs to manage chronic pain for service-connected injuries. Opioid painkillers are highly addictive, and a Veteran can easily become at risk for abuse or addiction.

About 41,000 Veterans are diagnosed with an addiction to painkillers in a single year. The most common prescription painkillers Veterans are most likely to misuse include the opioid drug hydrocodone, prescribed generically or under the brand names Norco and Vicodin.

The government has tightened restrictions on opioid drugs in recent years due to the risk of abuse and misuse. But, addiction to these medications has become a gateway to illicit drug use.

Marijuana is the most commonly used drug among Veterans. At least 11%, or 2.3 million Veterans reported using marijuana. Although marijuana has been legalized or decriminalized in some states, it is still considered a Schedule One controlled substance by federal law. As such, it is considered illegal by the federal government.

Veterans in some states may be prescribed medical marijuana and use it under doctor’s orders. Veterans participating in a state-sanctioned medical marijuana program will not be denied VA benefits. However, VA healthcare providers cannot recommend marijuana or help Veterans get it.

Nearly 11% of Veterans are admitted to treatment centers for heroin use. About 45,000 are diagnosed with heroin addiction in a single year.

More than 6% of Veterans are admitted to treatment centers for cocaine use.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Among Veterans

There’s no denying that mental health issues and SUD often go together, especially in Veterans. Anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can lead a Veteran to self-medicate with substances, which can easily lead to SUD.

Between 82-93% of Veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq had at least one co-occurring mental health disorder together with having a SUD.

Up to 50% of Veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq were diagnosed with at least one mental illness.

At least one in ten Veterans experience symptoms of anxiety or depression. Veterans with SUD are three to four times more likely to also be diagnosed with depression.

Veterans, PTSD, and Substance Abuse

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that results from exposure to a traumatic event. PTSD symptoms can affect all areas of life–physical, occupational, social, familial, and self-care. This negatively affects the ability to enjoy life. Veterans may cope by drinking or using drugs. PTSD can also worsen an existing SUD.

  • Nearly a quarter of all Veterans have PTSD.
  • Veterans with SUD are three to four times more likely to suffer from PTSD.
  • Nearly three-quarters of all Veterans with SUD who served in Afghanistan and Iraq also have PTSD.
  • More than one in five Veterans diagnosed with PTSD also have a co-occurring disorder.

VA Substance Use Disorder Treatment and Services

If a Veteran has developed an alcohol or drug addiction, seek the right treatment. An addiction may signal an underlying mental condition that needs to be addressed. Many treatments can help Veterans overcome both substance abuse and physical and mental symptoms.

The VA offers a range of services to assist Veterans grappling with substance use challenges. It provides tailored assistance to address individual needs, encompassing a variety of options from tackling unhealthy alcohol consumption to combating severe addiction.

Medication Options

  • Medically supervised detoxification for safe cessation of substance use and stabilization.
  • Drug substitution therapies, such as methadone and buprenorphine, to mitigate cravings associated with opiate addiction.
  • Nicotine replacement and other aids to aid in quitting tobacco use.

Counseling and Therapeutic Options

  • Short-term outpatient counseling.
  • Intensive outpatient treatment.
  • Marriage and family counseling.
  • Self-help groups.
  • Residential (live-in) care.
  • Ongoing support for relapse prevention to ensure sustained recovery.
  • Tailored programs catering to specific Veteran demographics, such as women Veterans, returning combat Veterans, and homeless Veterans.

The VA also extends treatment and assistance for health conditions often intertwined with substance use problems, such as PTSD and depression.

Substance abuse treatment is available to Veterans who have VA health care. If a veteran doesn’t have VA health care benefits, they may still be able to receive treatment for substance abuse. The VA has programs for Veterans who have served in a combat zone, or who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

Our VA Disability Lawyers Can Help Get the Services Veterans Need

The experienced and dedicated VA disability claims attorneys at Berry Law are here to help Veterans get the legal help and medical attention that they need for their substance abuse problems. We are attorneys who are Veterans, former VA employees, and military spouses. We understand the challenges Veterans face.

We also know that therapy and medical care are expensive. Our Veterans need help with these issues. Berry Law is here to start helping by providing quality and skilled legal representation. We can help Veterans appeal their VA claim to obtain the compensation and benefits that they deserve.

Please call (888) 682-0751 or contact us online today to schedule a free and confidential legal consultation. Our VA disability compensation law firm represents Veterans across the United States, and our legal team is available 24/7. We know the way forward.

Berry Law

The attorneys at Berry Law are dedicated to helping injured Veterans. With extensive experience working with VA disability claims, Berry Law can help you with your disability appeals.

This material is for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the Firm and the reader, and does not constitute legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and the contents of this blog are not a substitute for legal counsel.

Related Posts

Is Obesity Considered a VA Disability?
Is Obesity Considered a VA Disability?
How to Get 100% VA Disability for Depression
How to Get 100% VA Disability for Depression
What Foot Problems Qualify for VA Disability
What Foot Problems Qualify for VA Disability

Subscribe to our newsletter

The Service Connection

Our monthly newsletter features about important and up-to-date veterans' law news, keeping you informed about the changes that matter.

Skip to content