Care for Veterans with Substance Use Disorder

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October 10, 2019

After serving the country proudly, many veterans are left with lasting effects of the battlefield that can severely impact their physical, emotional, and mental health. The VA has made efforts to help veterans who need assistance, but it seems that the nature of addiction, along with other mental health conditions, is making it more difficult for some to seek out the help they need. Studies have shown that the strong correlation between PTSD and substance use disorder applies to veterans and civilians alike, making this issue not only unique to the military. In fact, acknowledging that these co-occurring conditions can exist in everyone has opened up much more research on how it can be most effectively treated, as it doesn’t have to be identified as something that only veterans specifically deal with.

  • 20% of veterans with PTSD have SUD
  • A third of veterans seeking SUD treatment also have PTSD
  • 1 in 10 veterans who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan report substance misuse

Self-Medicating PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder can make daily life incredibly difficult, even for the strongest and bravest in America. Many veterans who struggle with PTSD seek out substance use as a way to dull their symptoms temporarily, while also, unfortunately, making them worse in the long run. It’s been shown that drugs and alcohol can actually exacerbate the effects of PTSD in the form of severe anxiety when the body is approaching withdrawals. This often leads them to continue using more of these substances to chase away the gradually increasingly severe symptoms. It’s not long before a veteran can find themselves misusing their prescription medications, and sometimes running out before they can receive more. This can push some to resort to using illicit drugs off the street which are highly unpredictable and dangerous.

Treating PTSD and SUD Concurrently

The VA is aware of the strong correlation of the two conditions, prompting them to offer treatment that can help both, at the same time. Those with the strongest evidence of effectiveness include Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) (en Español), Prolonged Exposure (PE), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Along with medication-assisted treatment, relapse prevention education, cognitive behavioral therapy, and contingency management to stabilize SUD, veterans have options in how they want to go about their recovery process. There is also a program called COPE that helps veterans deal with trauma-focused PTSD treatment as well as SUD.

No Man Left Behind

Though the VA has made programs for veterans with SUD available, the rate of problematic substance use among veterans continues to rise. This alarming fact contributes to veterans who suffer from medical issues, vocational and intrapersonal impairment, psychiatric disorders, and increased rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. In fact, 30% of completed suicides were preceded by substance misuse, and 20% of high-risk behavior deaths were attributed to overdose. Veterans, like many other Americans, should be able to conveniently and affordably access treatment that can help.