Veterans Substance Abuse and Addiction

rally point palm beach rehab veterans substance abuse

Across the country, in small towns and big cities, there are veterans struggling with substance abuse and addiction. Stressors that are specific to military life – deployment, combat exposure, and post-deployment civilian/reintegration – have been linked to an increased risk of developing a substance use disorder (SUD) in military personnel and veterans. SUD has devastating consequences. It can cause or worsen: medical problems, other disorders (like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression), relationship problems, work impairment, and suicidal thoughts and attempts. According to a study of military personnel, alcohol or drug use preceded about 30% of completed suicides and alcohol or drug overdose attributed to about 20% of high-risk behavior deaths.

Not only can stressors specific to the military increase the risk of developing a SUD, past traumas (e.g., child, physical, or sexual abuse) also come into play since some individuals join the military to escape adverse home environments. As veterans’ substance abuse and addiction rates rise, now more than ever, addiction treatment services are needed. The information in this article may paint a grim picture but with effective, evidence-based treatments, veterans in need can get better.

What Is Substance Use Disorder?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, often called the ‘DSM-V’ or ‘DSM,’ is the official handbook on mental disorder diagnoses. DSM-V defines the criteria for SUDs as a pattern of use that results in marked distress and/or impairment and where two or more of the following symptoms are experienced over the course of a 12-month period:

  1. Using larger amounts of the substance or over a longer period of time
  2. Unsuccessful attempts trying to quit or cut back
  3. A lot of time spent on obtaining, using, and/or recovering from the effects of the substance
  4. A strong craving for the substance
  5. Using interferes with work, school, or home
  6. Using despite recurrent social or interpersonal consequences
  7. Reducing or giving up on commitments, hobbies, and interests
  8. Using in situations that may be physically hazardous, like driving a car
  9. Using despite physical or psychological consequences
  10. Increasing tolerance so more of it is required to get the same effect
  11. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms

If you meet two or three of the criteria, you’re considered to have a mild SUD. Four to five is moderate and six or more criteria is severe. Although SUD affects all demographics, young male veterans are hit especially hard.

Young Male Veterans and Substance Abuse

According to an article by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), substance use among veterans vary depending on gender, age, and marital status.

Veterans substance use statistics:

  • Diagnoses of alcohol and drug use disorder in veterans are more prevalent among male than female
    • 10.5% alcohol use disorders and 4.8% drug use disorders among male veterans
    • 4.8% alcohol use disorders and 2.4% drug use disorders among female veterans)
  • And more common among non-married and younger veterans (i.e., younger than 25 years old)

NCBI’s article points out that demographics associated with higher SUDs rates, like young and male, in the general population make up a greater proportion of the military population, which may explain the higher risk of certain SUDs compared to civilians. And while age may be “nothing but a number,” it’s a key predictor of SUD, with greater rates of SUDs associated with a younger demographic. Estimates often compile data for all ages despite notable variation by age. A study discovered that among male veterans, substance abuse was overall lower than that of civilians when all age groups were examined together. However, when only looking at male veterans between the ages of 18-25, substance abuse rates were greater in veterans than civilians.

Recommended Reading:

The Ultimate Guide to TRICARE Drug Rehab Coverage
Helpful Resources for Veterans
Veteran Assistance Programs

Most Abused Substances By Veterans

The most common types of substance use problems among veterans include alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs, however, there are other types of SUD. Each substance use disorder is classified as its own disorder – here are the six most common substance use disorders in the United States:

  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Tobacco use disorder
  • Cannabis use disorder
  • Stimulant use disorder
  • Hallucinogen use disorder
  • Opioid use disorder

Although all these disorders can be found in the veteran population, alcohol use disorder and opioid use disorder are among the most pervasive.

Veterans and The Prevalence of Alcohol Use

Among these disorders, alcohol use is the most widespread among veterans. In 1986, strict military policies were implemented to decrease problematic alcohol use, excessive drinking, and addiction. The policies, however, had little impact since they were enforced inconsistently and drinking has been a long-standing norm in U.S. military culture used for recreation, stress alleviation, and socializing.

A study examining data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health noted that veterans were more likely than civilians to use alcohol in a one month period (56.6% vs 50.8%) and to report heavy alcohol use in a one month period (7.5% vs 6.5%). Furthermore, those who with combat experience are more likely to drink heavily (26.8%) and binge drink (54.8%) in comparison to other military personnel (17% and 45%, respectively). These statistics are particularly alarming in light of the fact that in the United States, alcohol ranks as the fourth leading cause of preventable death and driving under the influence of alcohol accounts for 31% of all driving-related fatalities.

Rising Rates of Prescription Drug Use In Veterans

Opioids are an addictive type of prescription drugs and among the most commonly prescribed medications in the military for pain management. According to the NCBI, veterans in the Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system who received an opioid prescription went up from 17% to 24% from 2001 to 2009. Furthermore, pain medications that military physicians prescribed had more than quadrupled.

Common addictive medications prescribed to veterans include:

  • Painkillers (Lortab, Vicodin, OxyContin)
  • Benzodiazepines (Ativan, Valium, Xanax)
  • Sedatives (Ambien, Lunesta)

In addition to pain management, mental health diagnoses increase the probability of receiving an opioid prescription. Despite their susceptibility of developing an opioid use disorder, veterans with a diagnosis of PTSD (17.8%) or another type of mental health disorder (11.7%) were more likely than veterans without mental health diagnoses (6.5%) to receive an opioid prescription. Veterans with a PTSD diagnosis also receive greater doses, are more likely to receive another prescription for more opioids or a sedative-hypnotic, and are more likely to get prescription refills early.

Unfortunately, mental health disorders increase the likelihood of veterans developing an opioid addiction and experiencing a negative outcome like hospital visits, accidents, overdoses, and violence-related harm.

Addiction Treatment for Veterans

Veterans have a variety of addiction treatment options. In addition to traditional inpatient and outpatient rehab programs, veterans can seek treatment through the VA if they’re not able to find an affordable treatment program on their own. Some veterans, however, prefer to avoid the VA when looking for medical care because of long waiting periods and quality. In cases of serious PTSD and/or addiction, getting immediate treatment is crucial and seeking treatment outside the VA with a private treatment provider can help.

Located in beautiful West Palm Beach, Florida, Rally Point is a qualified treatment center for addicted veterans with PTSD and other mental health disorders. We accept TRICARE insurance and will work with you to personalize a treatment program that best fits you or a family member’s needs. Call our confidential 24/7 hotline at (888) 797-2559 or fill out our contact form to take the first step toward recovery.

About The Author

Editorial Staff at

The editorial staff at Rally Point works tirelessly to provide the most accurate and non-biased educational content to give our audience the best chance at achieving long-term success in recovery. This is accomplished by only employing highly trained individuals in the alcohol and drug addiction treatment industry. With hundreds of years of combined experience, the editorial staff at Rally Point are trained, qualified and are experts in the field of drug and alcohol addiction treatment.


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