Veterans & Addiction


Veterans may engage in substance abuse to cope with stress and other mental health problems. Know how to find help for a drug or alcohol addicted veteran.

Veterans are one of the specialized populations that are most highly affected by substance abuse. Unfortunately, not just these individuals but their families are also often affected by substance abuse and addiction. When this occurs, it is important to gain an understanding about veterans & addiction, and help these individuals find treatment that provides specialized, individualized care appropriate for this population.

If you or your family member is a veteran and suffering from a substance use disorder, don’t wait to seek help. Call 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) to speak with a treatment advisor and learn about the many options available to you for a safe, effective recovery.

Veterans & Addiction: How and Why It Happens

Substance abuse is a serious problem among veterans. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 7.1 percent of veterans between 2004 and 2006 met the criteria for a substance use disorder. But why does this occur?

Veterans have some of the highest rates of mental disorders among any specialized group. Around 18.5 percent of service members who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

  • People who suffer from mental disorders are twice as likely as the regular population to develop an addiction, as stated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The reverse of this statement is also true.
  • PTSD is a serious mental disorder, the symptoms of which are nightmares, flashbacks, hyperarousal, negative changes in beliefs, avoiding things that make you think of the experience, and triggers.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 2 of every 10 veterans with PTSD also have a substance use disorder.

Even for those who do not suffer from PTSD or another mental illness, military life puts a number of stresses on a person, which can develop into a substance use disorder.

  • Stress is one of the more common causes of substance abuse, which many individuals try to minimize with drugs or alcohol. These are dangerous coping mechanisms that usually make everything much worse.
  • Many former military personnel also experience issues like homelessness, problems with the law, and other traumas. These can lead to substance abuse as well.

According to the NIDA, the use of illicit drugs is lower among service people than it is among the regular population, likely due to the zero-tolerance policy in the military. Sadly, the abuse of prescription painkillers continues to increase among this population.

  • Many veterans return wounded and are given prescription opioids in order to manage their pain while healing. Some begin to abuse these drugs, which is a serious crisis in the U.S. today.
  • In 2008, 11 percent of service members admitted to abusing prescription drugs, which was an increase from 4 percent in 2005.
  • While those in active service are less likely to use illicit drugs, those who have retired or been injured may be more likely to do so.

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Families of veterans and service members also suffer from higher rates of substance abuse.

  • Children of deployed service members often struggle more academically and socially than other children. The longer a person’s deployment is, the more the child will be likely to suffer as well. These kinds of problems can easily lead to substance abuse.
  • Spouses and other loved ones of veterans and service members traditionally struggle with packing up and moving constantly as well as dealing with the difficulty of living a life of service. This can also lead to substance abuse.

Understanding how dangerous substance abuse is and how easily a person in this group could begin to fall into the habit of it is important. However, it is also necessary to be able to recognize this problem in yourself or in someone you love, especially if you belong to a military family.

Recognizing Addiction in Veterans

Being able to recognize when someone is using drugs or alcohol to a dangerous degree is important, especially if you are or you have a veteran in the family. Addiction is prevalent in this group, as you can see above, and it is important to help people with substance use disorders heal.

The signs of addiction in the veteran population are as follows:

  • They take their medication more often, in higher doses, or in other ways than prescribed. Many people who abuse prescription opioids crush and snort them in order to get the effects more quickly.
  • They experience intense mood swings that seem to come about with no explanation.
  • They become hostile when their substance abuse is brought up as a problem.
  • They no longer care about activities or things that once mattered to them.
  • They are experiencing serious problems at work due to lateness, decreased performance, or other issues.
  • They become secretive about where they are going, what they are doing, etc.
  • They begin to put all their money toward obtaining more drugs, even money that was meant for food, clothes, rent, etc.
  • They use drugs or alcohol even when alone.
  • They use drugs or alcohol to mask painful feelings which they refuse to discuss.
  • They stop taking care of their personal hygiene, stop eating and sleeping properly, etc.
  • They begin to put their substance abuse above all else.
  • They feel they would not be able to stop using, even if they know it is causing them and their loved ones serious problems.

If you notice any of these issues in someone you care about—or in yourself—it is time to seek help. It can be difficult to make an individual realize that their drug use has become a serious problem, but you may be able to do so through an intervention with your loved one’s closest friends and family members.

For many years, substance abuse and addiction were problems among veterans and service people that were not discussed. Now, more and more people are beginning to understand the severity of these issues as well as PTSD and other mental disorders. People are also beginning to seek help when they need it.

What Treatment Options Are Available for Veterans Addicted to Drugs and Alcohol?

Veterans addicted to drugs and alcohol do require professional treatment, and there are many detox and rehab facilities that offer specialized care to this group. It is important that veterans receive screenings for any mental illnesses when they begin treatment for addiction because of the statistics associated with this population.

Detox is often the first stage of addiction treatment (NIDA). It allows individuals who are dependent on drugs to be slowly weaned off them and for their withdrawal symptoms to be safely managed.

  • This is often a necessary choice, as withdrawal is one of the most dangerous times for relapse and because many veterans also suffer from mental disorders that could be exacerbated by the symptoms of withdrawal.
  • However, one must remember that detox alone is not a treatment for a substance use disorder and must be followed by rehab.

Medications and behavioral therapies are often used hand-in-hand during addiction treatment.

  • Medications can be used to treat withdrawal symptoms, reduce cravings, and even treat co-occurring mental disorders.
  • Behavioral therapies can treat mental disorders at the same time as addiction. They can also help patients learn better coping skills for the future in order to avoid relapse.

According to, programs for veterans who are suffering from mental illnesses (including substance use disorders) often need to be 24-hours or inpatient-based. This is because of the many problems facing these individuals and the extreme need for intensive care.

  • According to a study published in Psychiatric Quarterly, those with high psychiatric severity often fare better in inpatient treatment for addiction. Since veterans often suffer from dual diagnosis, this is usually a necessary option.

Trauma-informed care is also important when dealing with military service members or veterans who have experienced serious, traumatic incidents. Like with sexual assault victims or victims of natural disasters, patients should be made to feel as safe and comfortable as possible, and their experiences must be accounted for during treatment.

  • SAMHSA states that doctors, nurses, and therapists must be trained to provide trauma-informed care to patients who require it. This type of care should resist any potential for re-traumatizing the patient and should also provide paths to recovery for the patient, not just for their substance abuse but for their trauma as well.

There are many different options for those either in the military, family members of military personnel, or veterans seeking help for substance abuse. All of these populations have a high risk of addiction, so it is important to be aware of the problem. But the only way to ensure that an individual can build a safe and effective recovery is to help them seek professional treatment.

Getting Help for Veterans with Substance Use Disorders

Call 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) now to speak with a treatment advisor, and you can find help for yourself or someone you love who is struggling with a substance use disorder. We can match you with treatment facilities that will offer the care you need and even point you toward programs that will accept your insurance plan.


  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Veterans and Military Families. 
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Comorbidity: Substance Use Disorders and Other Mental Illnesses. 
  3. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2015). PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). Substance Abuse in the Military.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction: What Science Says- 8: Medical Detoxification.
  6. Veterans Health Administration. (n.d.). Mental Health Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Programs.
  7. The Psychiatric Quarterly. (1993). Inpatient vs Outpatient Treatment for Substance Dependence Revisited. 
  8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Trauma-Informed Approach and Trauma-Specific Interventions. 
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