There’s no doubt that veterans are among the most respected people in the world. They fight for our freedoms and experience unexplainable pain in harsh conditions. Although some veterans can return home and transition back to their normal life without huge setbacks, this unfortunately isn’t the case for many
You may have a veteran in your family who has struggled with their mental health and turns to drugs or alcohol for comfort, or you’ve probably heard stories in the news about how many veterans suffer from PTSD and addiction. This is actually a more common issue than some may think. In fact, 20% of veterans who fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, and up to 30% of Vietnam veterans struggle with PTSD throughout their lifetime.
We also know that it’s fairly common for veterans who suffer from PTSD to struggle with addiction. About 20% of veterans with PTSD also suffer from an addiction or dependence on drugs or alcohol.
You may be asking yourself a lot of questions at this point. Why is it so likely for veterans to be diagnosed with PTSD and suffer from addiction? What are the main causes of their addiction? And perhaps the most important question of all, how can veterans receive treatment after suffering from their trauma and substance abuse?
The truth is, this issue of veterans, PTSD and addiction is a complex one. There are different reasons as to why veterans are vulnerable to addiction, and every veteran’s story of trauma and substance abuse is different. We’ve compiled detailed explanations that can answer the several layers to this issue below.
What Exactly Is PTSD?
You probably know the basics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, otherwise known as PTSD. The meaning of this disorder can be explained from the name itself, it occurs in people after they have experienced something traumatic.
A major reason why substance abuse is a common co-occuring disorder is because of the harsh symptoms of PTSD. If you’re worried about a loved one who has recently returned home from combat, here are a few symptoms of PTSD to look out for, according to the American Psychiatric Association:
- Intrusive thoughts such as repeated, involuntary memories; distressing dreams; or flashbacks of the traumatic event. Flashbacks may be so vivid that people feel they are reliving the traumatic experience or seeing it before their eyes
- Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event may include avoiding people, places, activities, objects and situations that bring on distressing memories. People may try to avoid remembering or thinking about the traumatic event. They will most likely resist talking about what they experienced or how they feel about it
- Negative thoughts and feelings may include ongoing and distorted beliefs about themselves or others – for example, “I am bad,” or, “no one can be trusted,” ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame, showing decreased interest in activities that were previously enjoyed, or feeling detached or estranged from others
- Arousal and reactive symptoms may include being irritable and having angry outbursts, behaving recklessly or in a self-destructive way, being easily startled, or having problems concentrating or sleeping
When attempting to understand PTSD, it’s important to realize that memories are often tied to emotions and get encoded together. Emotions act on an unconscious level faster than conscious thought. The process is designed so that, for example, if you have a memory of a dangerous bear that killed your friend, the second you see a bear, you’ll start running rather than stop to analyze the situation
Basically, with PTSD, the memory gets overgeneralized. The sound of gunfire, initiating strong feelings of fear or pain, gets encoded with all loud sounds. Normally, the brain contextualizes memories so that loud noises would only affect you in a combat zone. But when the emotion is allowed to come up often and spill into everyday contexts, it bleeds into normal life.
Another unfortunate statistic that is important to take a look at is the rate of veterans who die by suicide. In 2017, about 6,139 U.S. veterans took their own lives, which is about 16.8 veterans who die by suicide per day. 1
It can be difficult to try to understand just how much pain veterans have gone through, but we can conclude that many turn to drugs or alcohol due to the trauma they have experienced. Many veterans don’t know how to cope with witnessing others being killed, being injured in combat, and other painful experiences associated with war. When they don’t know how to cope, alcohol and drugs can be a common source of comfort
It’s also common for veterans to be addicted to their anxiety or pain medication that has been prescribed to them. Abuse of prescription drugs is higher among troops than civilians, and this issue has been on the rise for the past few years.
Did you know that among veterans who died by suicide in 2017, 58.7% had a diagnosed mental health or substance use disorder in 2016 or 2017? This is why it’s so important for veterans who are struggling with their mental health or addiction to get professional treatment, so they can learn healthy ways to cope before it’s too late.
If you or a loved one is struggling with PTSD after returning home from combat, Black Bear Lodge offers compassionate trauma-informed care. Call us today at 706-914-2327.
Studying Vietnam Veterans Helps Us Understand Addiction
It may be shocking for you to hear that armed servicemen of the Vietnam War used drugs more than any previous generation of enlisted U.S. troops, in fact, by 1973, up to 20% of soldiers were habitual heroin users.
There were several reasons why heroin was used in such high numbers by our troops, the most influential of which were how highly accessible heroin was in Vietnam, and the high levels of stress and trauma, fueling heavy drug use.
When the news broke out in the U.S. that so many of our troops were addicted to heroin, President Richard Nixon launched an extensive study into these addicted servicemen after they returned home from combat.
At the time, many believed that once you’re addicted to a drug like heroin, you’ll be addicted for life. Many other factors that can cause addiction weren’t considered, they were just focusing on how addictive the substance was without paying much attention to mental health and other physiological factors.
The results of the study revealed that only 5% of Vietnam servicemen used heroin one year after returning home to the U.S., and after three years only 12% relapsed. These results shattered the beliefs that many had at the time about addiction
Those who conducted the study interviewed these veterans to get some answers. As it turns out, they were able to quit using heroin because of the exposure to a different, much healthier environment. They were no longer surrounded by other heroin users, not hearing gunfire constantly, and no longer experiencing the high stress levels of warfare.
So, what can we learn from this study? We can determine that there are many different factors to consider when someone is struggling with an addiction. We can also take away from this study that reintegrating back into civilian life, and being in a healthy environment with a support system can make a huge difference.
For many, the solution to addiction can be to remove oneself from a toxic environment and healing with supportive people around you. Treatment centers, like Black Bear Lodge, can offer this and much more to help you or a loved one recover from PTSD and addiction.
How Can Veterans Recover?
It can seem impossible for a veteran who has experienced so much trauma to recover from PTSD and addiction, but you or a loved one have options.
First and foremost, dual diagnosis treatment is essential in order to have a chance of long-term recovery. This form of treatment aims to treat not only the addiction, but the underlying causes of addiction as well. In most cases for veterans, their mental health would be evaluated so PTSD, and other mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, can be treated along with addiction.
Another popular form of therapy for veterans struggling with PTSD is exposure therapy. This type of therapy exposes the individual to “triggers” or memories of the traumatic event in some way, but this exposure occurs in a safe setting where the client has control. You or a loved one would be guided by a psychologist or therapist, and can always stop the experience at any time. A psychologist monitors the sessions to ensure the exposure is gradual and not overwhelming.
Exposure therapy can be extremely beneficial because it basically aims to recode memories without the strong emotions attached that causes so many problems. As a memory is recalled, it brings up the same emotion and then gets re-encoded with that same emotional intensity. But if you consciously work to de-intensify the emotion, eventually it gets coded as normal information without the strong emotion attached.
An example of this is getting over a fear such as heights. If you're scared of heights but are exposed to it for long enough, you can eventually conquer your fear. Think of it like climbing up another rung on a ladder each day until you’ve conquered your fear.
Another form of treatment that has worked for veterans with PTSD is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). It’s similar to exposure therapy, as it aims to help patients reprocess traumatic information until it is no longer psychologically disruptive.
Through EMDR, patients tend to “process” the memory in a way that leads to a peaceful resolution. This often results in increased insight regarding both previously disturbing events and long held negative thoughts about the self.
Ultimately, what will end up working for you or a loved one may be different than what works for other veterans who have suffered from similar traumas and disorders. Discussing these treatment options with your family and master’s level clinicians at a treatment center can help make this process easier.
Where Can You Turn for Addiction and PTSD Treatment?
Admitting that you’ve gone through something traumatic isn’t easy for anyone. Opening up about PTSD and addiction takes a lot of courage.
Black Bear Lodge offers dual diagnosis treatment and trauma-informed care that can help you or a loved one move on from past trauma and recover from an addiction. Our master’s level clinicians can help you or a loved one get back on track.We are also in-network with TRICARE© health insurance, the most common insurance provided to our vets.
Being in the hands of highly experienced and compassionate staff nestled in the peaceful foothills of northern Georgia can help the transition to sobriety be an easier one. Call Black Bear Lodge today at 706-914-2327 to help you or a loved one recover from PTSD and addiction.
1. "2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report". U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Sep. 2019.