Military veterans have very different life experiences from the rest of the population. As a result, they also face a lot of unique physical, emotional and mental health issues. These include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders.

If you are a veteran struggling with mental health, you aren’t alone. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports that over 11 percent of veterans who have seen combat now face PTSD.1 One in 10 have a drug or alcohol use disorder.2 These two issues often overlap and determine the type of treatment a veteran will need. No matter the health concerns faced, veterans can find personalized care that understands their life experiences and individual recovery needs.

Prevalence of Substance Abuse in the Military

Active duty military personnel have unique circumstances and personal experiences that involve heightened stress levels and trauma. Psychological distress can be a risk factor for substance use. Alcohol and drugs can provide temporary feelings of relief or self-medication for stress, trauma and PTSD symptoms.

Even during active duty, members of the military have issues with substance abuse at different rates than the general public. The Health-Related Behavior (HRB) Survey [of] Active Duty Service Members estimated that as many as 84.5 percent of active-duty military personnel were current drinkers in 2011 with 11.3 percent considered to be problem drinkers.3 This is higher than the national average, as the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) estimates that approximately 7.2 percent of American adults over the age of 18 in 2012 were classified as having an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Illicit drug use rates tend to be lower in the military, but this may be because of the military’s zero-tolerance policy and the hesitance of active members and veterans to report use. As in all areas of the population, prescription medication use and abuse rates remain high.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse shares, “Pain reliever prescriptions written by military physicians quadrupled between 2001 and 2009 — to almost 3.8 million.”5 This translates to high substance abuse and addiction rates within the military as well.

Why Does Substance Use Start — and Continue?

Being away from home and family and immersed in a high-stress environment may encourage military members to engage in substance use. Many substances, including alcohol, are central nervous system depressants.

These types of drugs can temporarily provide the following:
  • Feelings of calm
  • Feelings of pleasure
  • A sense of escape
  • A sense of camaraderie
  • Pain relief
  • Stress relief
  • Emotional numbness

It’s easy to see why drinking and drug use seem appealing at first. Drugs and alcohol increase the production of dopamine, a chemical messenger related to pleasure and reward, and further encourage the use of these substances.

However the more often a person drinks or uses, the more likely dependence and addiction become. Chronic use or abuse of a substance creates a physical dependency. The brain and body begin to expect the substance and to feel wrong, off or ill without it. Drunk or high becomes “normal.” At the same time physical tolerance begins to develop. Individuals will need more or higher doses to create the same effects. Individuals will experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using or even in between doses. These further reinforce continued use.

The Connection Between Substance Use and PTSD in Military Veterans

Veterans don’t just have higher rates of substance use. They also have higher rates of PTSD and other serious mental health concerns. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can be triggered in anyone who experiences a traumatic or life-threatening event. Because military personnel are more likely to experience these and to live in high-stress environments, they are more likely to develop PTSD.

Mental health and addiction are not separate experiences. The VA explains the relationship between the two: “Some people try to cope with their PTSD symptoms by drinking heavily, using drugs, or smoking too much. People with PTSD have more problems with drugs and alcohol both before and after getting PTSD. Also, even if someone does not have a problem with alcohol before a traumatic event, getting PTSD increases the risk that he or she will develop a drinking or drug problem.”6

Those facing PTSD may have experienced trauma as a result of drug use. They may also turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate symptoms.

Unfortunately, this short-term “solution” leads to more lasting side-effects such as the following:
  • Increased numbing of emotions
  • Heightened irritability, hostility and aggression
  • Avoidance of trauma, symptoms and feelings
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Depression

The longer a person puts off PTSD and substance use disorder treatment, the more complicated these issues become. Neither just goes away on its own, but with professional help, true healing becomes available and accessible.

Substance Use and Mental Health Treatment for Military Veterans

Military members and veterans have seen, felt and done things that the general population has not. They need treatment that understands the individual, complex challenges they face now and the life experiences that underlie these challenges. The VA shares that as many as 2 out of 10 veterans with PTSD also has a substance use disorder. One in three veterans with a substance use disorder also has PTSD.6

Veterans need care that addresses trauma and PTSD symptoms. They need treatment that understands the relationship between military experience, trauma and substance use. These and any other co-occurring mental or physical health issues must be treated at the same time for the best recovery results. Comprehensive, integrated treatment includes multiple forms of care and therapy designed to address any and all concerns.

What Does Integrated Treatment Look Like?

Group therapy offers feelings of inclusion and a safe place to practice interpersonal skills. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches coping skills and methods for shifting negative thoughts into positive or productive ones.

These can be offered through outpatient, intensive outpatient or inpatient programs. Inpatient or residential treatment offers the most structured care in the most supportive environment. It may also include medically supervised detox services and integrated physical health care. Any and all forms of treatment should last at least 30 days and include long-term aftercare support.

Using Military Benefits for Integrated SUD and PTSD Treatment

The VA provides eligible former members of the U.S. Armed Forces with treatment options for mental health disorders and substance use disorders. The VA provides a wide range of services on an outpatient or inpatient basis through VA hospitals. Members enrolled in the VA health care system are eligible for these benefits.

book on VA benefits on deskTRICARE benefits can also cover recovery services with prior authorization and determination of medical or psychological need. Detox services may be covered for up to seven days, inpatient rehab for 21 days, and acute inpatient psychiatric care may be covered for between 30 and 45 days. Up to 60 group therapy sessions and 15 outpatient family visits are also included.

Contact your local VA center or the VA Mental Health department for more information on these benefits.

Private Substance Use and Mental Health Treatment for Veterans

Private rehab facilities, like Black Bear, are always an option for anyone looking for the best integrated care. Many offer specialized programs that cater to specific populations like veterans and private or employer-provided health insurance can help cover the costs of treatment.

Some facilities or non-profit groups may offer discounts or scholarships to military veterans or those demonstrating financial need. Other facilities offer manageable payment plans or sliding-scale pricing. This makes getting treatment, and the right treatment, within anyone’s reach.

How Do Military Veterans Find Treatment?

Black Bear Lodge can try to help you find the care you need that accepts the insurance you have. All conversations are confidential, compassionate and professional. Reach out to learn more about getting a diagnosis, personalized care and long-term support for a healthy, balanced, drug-free life. Call 706-914-2327 now.


1 How Common Is PTSD in Veterans?” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.

2 Problems with Alcohol Use.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.

3 2011 Health-Related Behavior (HRB) Study.” 2011.

4 Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Aug. 2018.

5 Substance Abuse in the Military.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Mar. 2013.

6 Substance Abuse in Veterans.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.