As thousands of American military members return from active duty overseas, an alarming number of veterans are demonstrating symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Unfortunately, to cope with the challenges these conditions present, many personnel are turning to the false comfort provided by alcohol and drugs. How can we protect the bravest veterans from becoming victims of addiction?
The Substances of Choice
Although veterans are not likely to abuse illicit drugs, they are more likely to develop alcohol addiction. In addition, the increase in prescription painkillers and anti-anxiety medications given to military members has led to a rise in prescription drug abuse. Prescription drug addiction doubled between 2002 and 2005, and nearly tripled between 2005 and 2008, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The numbers are staggering. One Army study identified nearly 30 percent of returning soldiers who exhibited signs of alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, few of these veterans were referred for treatment. A different study identified 42 percent of reserve soldiers as needing mental health treatment. Most alarmingly, drug and alcohol abuse was a factor in nearly one-third of Army suicide deaths from 2003 to 2009, and in almost half of non-fatal suicide attempts from 2005 to 2009.
The results from all studies are clear: we are not doing enough to help our active and returning service members cope with the traumatic events that occur during wartime — and the pressures associated with living a fulfilling lifestyle while home in America.
How PTSD and Other Conditions Lead to Substance Abuse
Many individuals who struggle with substance abuse also suffer from an undiagnosed but treatable mental health condition such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, or panic disorder. Known as co-occurring disorders, the struggling person attempts to self-soothe by relying on the initially-relaxing effects of alcohol and drugs. Unfortunately, because alcohol and prescription drugs force the brain into a chemically-dependent state, the symptoms associated with the original, undiagnosed mental health condition intensify. The result? Addiction.
Family members who try to help their struggling loved one often inadvertently enable the destructive behavior by making excuses, or hiding or lying about how much the person they love is using. This only harms the person and the relationship more, and can end in divorce, financial problems, legal trouble and violence.
If you know a veteran who appears to be struggling with substance abuse, help is available. The federal government has developed many programs designed to assist returning service members adjust to life outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Many private rehabilitation centers, such as Clarity Way, offer comprehensive, residential recovery services as well. Don’t wait until it’s too late.