PTSD and Alcohol Abuse in Veterans: What’s the Connection?

ptsd and alcohol abuse in veterans

November 11th is Veterans Day. This day, previously known as Armistice Day, is a day that allows us to honor veterans of all wars as well as those who died in service. Veterans Day and its accompanying activities are a great premise for bringing to light the many issues that affect veterans, such as mental health issues and SUD.

Laguna Shores Recovery in Dana Point, California understands the connection between veterans and addiction, and how you and your loved ones can benefit from the resources available to find the necessary support.

Why is Addiction Higher Among Veterans?

Many veterans are affected by the complex and multifaceted problem of addiction. Substance use disorders can caused by a combination of many factors, whether they be physical, emotional, or psychological. A few major causes of addiction in veterans are:

  • Trauma: Many veterans have experienced traumatic events during their service tours, such as military sexual trauma, combat exposure, service injuries, or witnessing death or violence, and these events can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is characterized by hyperarousal, nightmares, intrusive memories, flashbacks, and avoidance, and can make veterans feel anxious, depressed, angry, or numb. This causes many veterans to turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain and cope with these negative emotions.
  • Pain: Veterans may incur serious injuries and develop chronic pain from their service. Pain, particularly chronic pain, interferes with daily functioning and quality of life, and opioid painkillers are often prescribed to address this pain. This method of relief is double-edged since opioids are highly addictive and can cause tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms. Veterans may misuse their medication or abuse their prescriptions, and some seek out illicit opioids as an alternate solution.
  • Family history of addiction: Some forms of addiction can have a genetic component, as some people may inherit a higher susceptibility to developing a substance use disorder. Veterans with a familial history of addiction are more likely to develop an addiction themselves, particularly when exposed to drugs or alcohol at an early age or when subjected to stressful environments.
  • Other mental health conditions: The presence of other mental health conditions aside from PTSD, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia can affect the mood, cognition, behavior, and social functioning of veterans and may co-occur with substance use disorders. This will mean that a dual diagnosis will be necessary for complete, proper, and effective treatment.
  • Adjusting back to civilian life: Transitioning from active service to a more docile civilian life, such as finding a job, reconnecting with family and friends, or adjusting to a different culture and lifestyle comes with its challenges. This can lead to feelings of isolation, alienation, and boredom, these veterans may struggle to find meaning and purpose in their new roles. These factors, as well as a host of others, make veterans vulnerable to substance misuse and push them to addiction as a way of coping with stress or filling a void.

Which Types of Substance Use are Most Common Among Veterans?

Different regions have different flavors of substances that veterans develop addictions to. According to the most recent data available, alcohol, marijuana, and opioids are the most common substances used by veterans in California. Here are a few facts about each substance:

  • Alcohol: Approximately 50% of veterans in California admitted to using alcohol within the past month, and 7% met the qualifying criteria for an alcohol use disorder in the past year.
  • Marijuana: Around 20% of veterans in California reported marijuana use within the past year, with 3% meeting the criteria for a cannabis use disorder in the past year.
  • Opioids: Approximately 4% of veterans living in California reported prescription opioid use in the past year. Of these, 1% qualified for opioid use disorder in the past year.

What Types of Mental Illnesses Are Most Common Among Veterans?

Mental illnesses run rampant among veterans in California, as well as in other states. A UCLA study showed that 3.5% of Californian veterans needed treatment for mental health issues between 2011 and 2013. The most common mental health disorders among Californian veterans are:

  • Depression: Depression is an increasingly common mood disorder that is denoted by persistent sadness, hopelessness, and loss of joy in daily activities. Depression affects sleep patterns, appetite, energy levels, and focus, and it can be triggered by biological factors, traumatic events, or chronic stress. About 18% of veterans in California had depression in 20202.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a mental health issue caused by experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening or extremely stressful event, such as natural disasters, combat, abuse, violence, or sexual assault. Some of PTSD’s major side effects are flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, anger, and avoidance of reminders of the trauma. This is a debilitating condition that can wreak havoc on your relationships, work, and quality of life. Approximately 3% of Californian veterans had PTSD in 2020.
  • Alcohol misuse: Alcohol misuse is the excessive and prolonged use of alcohol, and it leads to physical, social, and mental problems. Abusing alcohol impairs your judgment, coordination, and memory, and increases the risk of violence, accidents, bad decisions, regret, and liver disease. Alcohol misuse can potentially worsen other mental health conditions or mask underlying issues and make them harder to detect and treat. Around 17% of veterans in California in 2020 had alcohol misuse disorder.

These are the most prevalent mental health issues that veterans in California face among many others such as anxiety, traumatic brain injury (TBI), substance misuse, and dementia.

How Common Are Co-occurring PTSD and SUD in Veterans?

veterans and alcoholism

Co-occurring PTSD and SUD in veterans is a prevalent and serious problem. One study shows that 46% of individuals with lifetime PTSD also had a SUD. Approximately 1 in 3 Californian veterans with SUD seeking VA care also had PTSD. These disorders can feed off of each other and make the other subsequently worse.

What Resources Are Available for Treating PTSD and Alcohol Abuse in Veterans?

Mental health issues, SUDs, and AUD are not necessarily death sentences for veterans. There are many resources available for treating these co-occurring disorders, ranging from support lines to addiction therapy services and treatment programs. Some of them are:

  • Veterans Crisis Line: This confidential service provides veterans with 24/7 access to help for crisis or treatment options for substance use or other mental health issues. You can reach the Veterans Crisis Line by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1, texting 838255, or chatting online with trained responders.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): This is a federal agency that provides education and information concerning treatment options and programs for veterans with substance use disorders. Reach SAMHSA by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or looking at their website to find your closest treatment facility.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): This research institute is a wellspring of information on the science of addiction and dependencies and how to prevent and treat substance use disorders. You can learn more about the causes, consequences, and treatments of addiction by visiting their website.
  • VA/DoD Clinical Practice Guideline for PTSD: This is an easily accessible document that provides recommendations for the assessment and treatment of SUD and PTSD in veterans. This document suggests that veterans with both disorders should be offered evidence-based treatment for each issue, such as Prolonged Exposure (PE) or Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for PTSD, medication, or behavioral therapy for SUD.
  • Community Care Network: This program run by the VA offers veterans a direct link to community providers to receive treatment and care. You can reach out to your local VA medical center or visit their website to learn more about eligibility and benefits.

These are a few of the resources that can help you or your loved one who is struggling with PTSD and alcohol abuse. Specialized care is also available in the form of treatment centers.

Laguna Shores Recovery Is Here To Help You Or A Loved One

Laguna Shores Recovery in Dana Point, CA, offers specialized, personalized, and extensive care for you or someone you know who is struggling with mental health issues, AUD, or SUD. You cannot be your therapist, and withdrawal on its own can cause medical complications that can be critical or life-threatening if not supervised by a competent and qualified medical professional.

Contact us today for a consultation, to speak with our admissions team about enrollment in one of our programs, or to tour our facility and see what we can offer you. The journey to recovery and rehabilitation begins with a single step. Do not let fear and stigma prevent you from reclaiming control over your life. You have the right to live long and healthy and free from any SUD, AUD, or other mental health issues.