Substance Abuse & PTSD in Veterans
Research studies that analyze substance abuse among army veterans have found that military deployment, combat exposure, and post-deployment reintegration challenges put army veterans at an increased risk of developing substance use disorders.1
As a result of a specific lifestyle and experiences, which are different from those of the general population, there are some causes and patterns of substance abuse characteristic for army veterans. There is evidence of a strong correlation between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, which often occurs in this population.2 In addition, there is a tendency towards certain types of substances among the army: they mostly resort to alcohol, smoking, prescription painkillers, and sedatives.3
These are the reasons why there is a need for a specifically designed setting for veteran’s substance abuse treatment and treatment for first responders suffering from PTSD.
What Is the Relation Between PTSD and Substance Abuse?
PTSD is defined as a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.4
People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. Some common symptoms of PTSD include:5
- Nightmares and insomnia.
- Flashbacks of the traumatic event.
- Intensive unpleasant feelings such as sadness, fear, anger, guilt, and shame.
- Detachment and estrangement from other people.
- A tendency to avoid situations that remind the person of the traumatic event.
PTSD in Army Veterans
PTSD does not occur only in army veterans, but this group is particularly vulnerable because they are exposed to combat, violence, and serious injuries. Studies show that PTSD and substance abuse in veterans are strongly correlated, which can also be seen from the official statistics of the US Department of Veterans Affairs:6
- More than 2 of 10 veterans with PTSD also have substance use disorder (SUD).
- Almost 1 out of every 3 veterans seeking treatment for SUD also has PTSD.
- The number of veterans who smoke nicotine is almost double for those with PTSD (about 6 of 10) versus those without a PTSD diagnosis (3 of 10).
- About 1 in 10 returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan abuse alcohol or other drugs.
- War veterans struggling with PTSD and alcohol abuse tend to binge drink.
How Do You Diagnose a Veteran With Substance Abuse?
According to the guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association, substance use disorders (SUD) are defined as the recurrent use of alcohol and/or drugs that causes clinically significant impairment, including health problems, disability, and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home.6
To be diagnosed with SUD, a person needs to experience two or more symptoms over the course of a 12-month period:7
- Impaired control: A person feels a strong need to use the substance; even when they wish to stop, they fail to cut down or avoid substance use.
- Social problems: As a consequence of substance use, the person cannot complete everyday tasks at work, school, or home.
- Risky use: Substance use puts the person at safety risks but the person continues to use them.
- Drug effects: There is tolerance to a substance, which means that a person needs larger amounts to get the same effect; when the person does not take the substance, they experience withdrawal symptoms.
SUD & Co-Occurring Disorders in Veterans
Veterans diagnosed with SUD commonly suffer from the following co-occurring disorders:8
- Mental health disorders, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, and adjustment disorder.
- Medical conditions, such as obesity, sleep disturbance, physical injury, and chronic pain.
Veteran’s substance abuse treatment usually also addresses these disorders.
Unsure where to start? Take Our Substance Abuse Self-Assessment
Take our free, 5-minute substance abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance abuse. This evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are designed to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result. Please be aware that this evaluation is not a substitute for advice from a medical doctor.