The pressure of military life often leads to veterans undergoing substance abuse. As we celebrate Veteran’s Day later this week, we must remember not only their accomplishments and courage but also their struggles both during and after service.
Co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders continue to haunt our veterans, and we must always be there to support them. Here’s how we can celebrate Veteran’s Day in a meaningful way.
Why do veterans turn to drug and alcohol?
Military life is stressful for many veterans. Some of the things they experienced include:
- Constant risks of injury or death on the field
- Losing colleagues while on duty
- Worrying about their loved ones back home
To cope with the stress, some of them abuse substances. The most abused substance is alcohol, with 1 in 3 service military personnel found to be “binge drinkers.”
This abuse continues well after service, as they face difficulties rejoining civilian life like:
- Catching up with the rest of the world
- Mending relationships formed before the war
- Finding stable employment
Many studies have dug into the incidence of veterans and substance abuse. A 2019 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse revealed the following statistics:
- 11% of veterans are diagnosed with having a substance use disorder (SUD).
- Veterans diagnosed with having an SUD are 3-4 more likely to be found with co-occurring PTSD or depression.
- Between 37 to 50% of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars were diagnosed with co-occurring SUD and mental disorders.
Solving this issue has turned out to be challenging as well. In the 2015 Health Related Behaviors Survey (HRBS) that studied drug use among veterans, only 8.6% of respondents self-reported their substance abuse.
Besides wanting to avoid the punishment of discharge, this is because they want to steer clear of:
- Being mocked by their peers for being “weak” and seeking support for their addiction
- The stigma towards substance use victims
- Facing the risk of losing job prospects and relationships
In other words, veterans turn to substance use because of their experiences both during and after service. Even with treatment services like Veterans Affairs (VA) drug rehab, many veterans prefer to hide their issues than risk facing judgment by society.
How to support veterans against substance abuse
The first thing you need to do to help veterans is to determine if they’re undergoing substance abuse. To do that, you need to look out for the signs.
In particular, there are 3 types of signs that you have to look out for:
- Appearance – Disheveled image, wearing the same clothes for extended periods of time, lack of hygiene
- Behavior – Occasionally spacing out while being with someone, forgetfulness, staring into the distance on their own
- Sociability – Isolating themselves during social events, constantly stuttering while talking, unenthusiastic responses when being talked to
The key to supporting veterans against substance abuse is to help them reintegrate with daily life. They have been away from home for a long time — the last thing they need is to be alienated for their substance abuse problems.
Of course, reducing their substance usage is one of your main objectives, but you have to do it in a very supportive and welcoming way. This means that you have to avoid being upfront about it as much as possible.
Here are very effective ways you can help them combat their substance use:
- Always engage in casual, friendly conversations with them. Most of their social interactions in the field were often serious, stressful, and required quick responses. Talking to them in a relaxed, easygoing way helps them socially reintegrate with normal daily life.
- Help them through their personal problems. Be it financial or social, supporting them through their current problems keeps them away from the substances.
- Suggest recreational activities that don’t involve alcohol. Sports, board games, hobbies—these activities, in general, help them redirect their energy to something that utilizes their physical prowess in a fun way.
- Encourage seeking professional treatment. Seeking professional assistance will provide them with the necessary coping tools and strategies. They’ll be able to navigate difficult situations with greater awareness.
Remember to always exercise patience and empathy, as this process will take time.
Helping veterans with their mental health
All veterans deserve support and care for what they experienced during their service. Even if a veteran currently doesn’t consume any substances, at some point, they eventually might.
They may have been mentally and emotionally drained from the stress of military service. Returning home should mean more than just being away from the battlefield — it has to be a genuine, fruitful reintegration into normal daily life. Otherwise, they might be unable to cope with their negative experiences and eventually resort to substances.
- Invite them to social gatherings. They lost time away from home and may have greatly missed their family and friends. Inviting them is a good way for them to catch up with loved ones while reintegrating themselves to peacetime.
- As much as possible, try to avoid asking about their experiences in the field. You may unknowingly cause them to feel discomfort as they remember harrowing moments while in service.
- If they are vocal about their experiences, talk about them in a positive light. Compliment their bravery, resourcefulness, or physical prowess as an acknowledgment of their accomplishments. Avoid asking about touchy subjects and be polite if you do decide to ask.
- Always ask them how they’re doing. Give them a phone call or shoot them a message every once in a while. Doing this lets them acknowledge that they are, indeed, back home and that their presence is appreciated outside of military life.
Alcohol and drug rehab for veterans
Remembering Veteran’s Day should not be confined to just 1 day. It’s a continuous process of establishing a strong, holistic support system for veterans undergoing substance abuse. If we continue to aid veterans struggling with co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders, we can open up a culture where other veterans can feel welcome in showing their vulnerabilities — we can show that life after the military is filled with hope and support.
At California Recovery Center, we solemnly salute our troops for braving struggles even after the line of duty. Our line of treatments includes specialized veteran substance abuse programs for our heroes returning from the battlefield. If you or your loved one is a veteran struggling with alcohol or drugs after service, we eagerly welcome you with open arms and a sure plan for your recovery.