Nationally recognized columnist, Karie Fugett, published a gripping narrative about her late husband, Cleve Fugett, a Marine war hero who, in 2010, tragically lost his life to a prescription opioid overdose. During his second deployment in Iraq, Cleve’s Humvee was hit by an IED, leaving the military vet with an amputated leg, PTSD, and a traumatic brain injury. Returning home, Cleve sought relief through prescribed opioids but quickly faced the mounting guilt, shame, and stigma surrounding Veteran substance abuse. Ultimately, the disease that affects millions of Americans each year claimed his life.
In 2020, a widely circulated story involving then-Democratic presidential-nominee Joe Biden’s son and American Veteran, Hunter Biden, faced media scrutiny due to his ongoing, lengthy battle with addiction. Perhaps this instance raises the bigger question of the role stigma plays in discouraging U.S. military members from seeking help for substance abuse. According to the National Institutes of Health, 75% suffering from substance use disorder never gets help because of shame and stigma.
Seeking Change for Veteran Heroes
These stories are a mere glimpse of the countless others that paint the heart-wrenching tales of the U.S. Military heroes’ civilian life post-service. Veterans suffering from substance abuse addiction are, sadly, not an anomaly. In fact, many vets struggle with both addiction and mental health concerns, especially those who have served in combat. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, U.S. troops and Veterans with first-hand experience of war are significantly more at risk for abusing alcohol, prescription opioids, and even heroin.
Veteran substance abuse is a growing epidemic, and many of our heroic soldiers are seeking resources for addiction, trauma, and mental health.
Those who are struggling with substance abuse and other mental health conditions should know that with effective treatment, soldiers can overcome the disease of addiction, reduce the likelihood of relapse, and adjust to a fulfilling life outside of the military.
Consider taking the first step in recovery by seeking help through AspenRidge’s Addiction & Mental Health Treatment Programs for Veterans and Active Duty Military. Contact our treatment center directly 24/7 at 855-288-5588.
Quick Veteran Substance Abuse Facts
Nearly 2.8 million U.S. service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 19 years. At present, it’s unknown how many U.S. troops and Veterans misuse alcohol and drugs. However, in 2015, VA officials reported a 55% increase in opioid use disorders among Veterans following combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Roughly 68,000 Veterans were treated for opioid addiction in 2016.
Here are some quick facts about Veteran substance abuse:
- More than two out of ten Veterans with PTSD also suffer from SUD
- Almost one out of every three Veterans seeking treatment for SUD also have PTSD
- In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about one in ten returning Veterans had a problem with alcohol or other drugs.
- Male and female military members who have experienced sexual assault are at risk for mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
- In 2009, military doctors wrote around 3.8 million prescriptions for pain relievers.
- Approximately 10% of the homeless population comprises Veterans, and nearly 75% of homeless Veterans experience mental health or substance abuse issues.
The Problem of Substance Abuse Among Veterans
The experience of war and the resulting mental health disorders reveals a strong correlation between the two. In many instances, war can lead to or even worsen problems with drug dependency for soldiers. The rate of Veteran substance abuse continues to climb, with treatment doing little to halt the growing trends. Only about half of military service members receive adequate treatment for substance abuse or mental health conditions.
In addition to coping with wartime grief, service members often experience stress soon after leaving military culture, and many experience sharp declines in their mental health. In addition, returning service members often encounter deeply held societal stigmas surrounding mental health care. It’s often viewed as a sign of weakness, and through this skewed perception, military Veterans often navigate mental health care through isolation and self-medication.
PTSD and Veteran Substance Abuse
According to the National Institute of Health, studies have shown that 46% of Veterans diagnosed with lifetime PTSD also met the criteria for substance use disorder (SUD).
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition most often associated with active duty and Veterans. More broadly, PTSD is a mental health condition that can impact anyone and is the body and mind’s natural response to a traumatic event. PTSD tends to affect military and Veterans at higher levels than civilian counterparts, simply because of the increased levels of exposure to potentially traumatic events, also known as PTEs.
Studies have found that 44% of Veterans who go to war return home with chronic pain, and between about 18,5% of Veterans who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan returned home with PTSD. It’s not unusual for war Veterans to return with a combination of both.
Symptoms of PTSD can include reliving a traumatic event, avoiding reminders of trauma, increased emotional response, which may manifest as:
- Angry outbursts
- Bipolar disorder
- Concentration Difficulties
Due to high levels of stress and ongoing episodes of PTSD, Veterans often experience a greater risk of using drugs and alcohol to cope with their symptoms.
Wounded in Action: Crisis of Prescription Abuse in the Military
Members of the U.S. armed forces bravely serve our country and defend our freedoms, but often at significant costs. Many soldiers are wounded during deployment and more severe injuries that can cause chronic pain.
In 2001 and 2003, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) deployed more than 1 million military personnel. Approximately 21,000 of those deployed were wounded in combat. Due to the overseas conflict, around 46% of those injured had to be medically evacuated and many sustained injuries caused by blast-related injuries, explosive devices (IEDs), land mines, shrapnel, etc. About 65% of these injured soldiers also had symptoms of traumatic brain injury.
According to the Veterans Association, 50-60% of service members returning from deployment experience chronic pain. Doctors routinely prescribe pain-relieving medications to offset physical trauma. However, Veterans who take opioid medications for pain and who also experience emotional issues like PTSD are more vulnerable to develop an addiction to these medications.
Consistent use of opioid medications can quickly morph into physical dependence. As tolerance for potent medications increase, Veterans may find themselves turning to higher doses to achieve the same desired relief. Others may turn to more widely available substances that are cheaper and easier to obtain. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the number of veteran fatal overdoses was nearly two times higher than the civilian overdose rate, with heroin and opioids being primary causes.
Suicide Rates Among Veterans
Drug and alcohol abuse play a significant role in the suicide rate among vets. Veterans who abuse substances are twice as likely to die by suicide. Veterans commit approximately 20% of all suicides in the United States, and up to 22 Veterans die each day due to suicide. What’s more, nearly 60% of Veterans who committed suicide were previously diagnosed with a mental health condition.
As with suicide, military members have an increased likelihood of developing substance use disorder due to factors including:
- Repeated Deployments
- Combat Exposure
- Difficult integrating into Civilian life
About 30% of Veteran suicides occurred after the use of alcohol or drugs.
Veterans Substance Abuse: Signs of Addiction
Addiction is a relapsing disease that impacts millions of Americans and their families. Unfortunately, our military members who sacrifice their lives to defend American liberties are at a higher risk of developing substance addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. If active duty or Veterans are struggling with drug or alcohol use, they may meet the substance use disorder criteria. Signs of Veteran substance abuse can include:
- Experiencing withdrawal after altering drug dose
- Social or relationship problems resulting from drug use
- Difficulty carrying out responsibilities at home, work, or school due to drug use
- Substance cravings
- Spending time getting, using, or recovering from drugs
- Requiring larger amounts of a substance to achieve desired effects
- Reckless or risky behavior
- Criminal activity due to substance use
- Blackouts or difficulties remembering events
- Isolation from friends and family
- Possession of drug and drug paraphernalia
- Emotional changes
Friends and family members who are so often close to the disease of addiction may also notice specific behavioral patterns that may indicate a more serious problem.
Veterans Substance Abuse Treatment
In 2012 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) identified several barriers to Veteran substance abuse care among all military members, including:
- Gaps in insurance coverage
- Fear of consequences
- Lack of confidential services
Expanding access to addiction treatment and increasing the use of evidence-based prevention programs and continued interventions may help provide more Veterans with the care they deserve and need. Since addiction impacts everyone differently, there are various levels of substance abuse treatment to consider, including programs like:
- Inpatient/In house transitional
- Intensive Outpatient
- Sober Living and Group Therapy
- Telehealth or Online Substance Abuse Treatment
For veteran substance abuse, dual diagnosis programs offer the opportunity to treat addiction and mental health issues concurrently. Veterans with both addiction and PTSD show the most significant improvements when both conditions are effectively addressed. There are several therapies or treatment modalities to treat dual diagnosis issues like depression and addiction, such as:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Complex trauma
- Neurofeedback therapy
- Life skills training
Treatment for various substance use and mental disorders is available through military health systems and have shown to be highly effective. However, all treatment should be individualized, including approved medication options for patients suffering from alcohol, nicotine, and opioid use disorder.
AspenRidge: Treating Veteran Substance Abuse
AspenRidge Recovery offers a 90-day treatment program (In House Transitional Program) in Colorado with recovery residences for Veterans suffering from mental health, complex trauma, and substance use disorders. We also offer flexibility through various other step-down programs such as Intensive Outpatient care and Outpatient treatment.
Our Veterans have bravely and graciously fought for our freedom, and AspenRidge is committed to fighting to make sobriety an integral part of everyday life. Our certified and licensed staff members can help you develop coping skills during our addiction therapy programs. These programs may include:
- Trauma therapy: Get to your addiction’s root cause and begin the healing process after trauma during this program.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy: This therapy is useful for identifying and altering negative behavior patterns.
- Dialectical behavior therapy: Using this therapy, you can regulate your emotions, tolerate distress, and communicate effectively with others.
- Brainspotting: This technique is commonly used to identify and treat past trauma and has great success in treating PTSD.
- Family therapy: Through this therapy, you can rebuild your broken relationships and learn to communicate better with your loved ones.
At each of our locations across Colorado, we hired an experienced and proactive clinical expert staff. Contact AspenRidge today to get insurance verification for our treatment programs. To learn more about our treatment programs, contact us at (719) 220-8730 today.