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Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is pervasive in veterans, especially those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Military service members face unique and considerable stressors that put them at risk for alcohol and drug abuse problems during and after their service.
Despite the immense difficulties that substance abuse and addiction imply for veterans and their families, many options exist for treatment and recovery within the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and individual treatment centers.
AUD is a diagnosable medical condition that occurs when someone drinks excessively to the point that it interferes with their daily life. It impacts a person’s brain chemistry and alters its function in ways doctors do not fully understand.
Signs and symptoms of AUD include:
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Veterans face higher rates and risk of alcohol use disorder than civilians. Different factors contribute to this.
These factors include:
Prolonged alcohol use during military service can contribute to continued use and addiction during and after active service.
The stresses of deployment and military culture create unique pressures for active service members to partake in binge drinking and alcohol misuse. Historically, heavy alcohol consumption has been widely accepted in the military as a way for service members to bond, ease interpersonal tensions, and relieve boredom on off days.6
Most military veterans with substance use disorder (SUD), including alcoholism, also have co-occurring mental health issues. For example, depression is one of the leading mental health conditions in the military.
After military service, symptoms associated with depression can intensify alcohol misuse, increasing the risk for addiction and other mental health issues.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the most common mental health disorder veterans face upon returning from service. These are the findings from different surveys:
Although alcohol can temporarily relieve PTSD symptoms, overconsumption can lead to addiction. In contrast, unregulated withdrawal can intensify PTSD symptoms.
Alcohol misuse is a significant clinical concern among military and veteran populations who have experienced military sexual trauma (MST).
MST, which refers to sexual assault or harassment experienced during military service, can lead to mental health conditions like PTSD and depression. Substance abuse disorders such as alcohol addiction often develop as a coping strategy for MST-related distress.9
Alcohol abuse and binge drinking are common among active-duty military personnel, and this behavior may evolve into alcoholism after retiring. The following statistics highlight the prevalence of alcoholism and substance abuse among veteran populations:
Besides alcoholism, veterans are at a high risk of being diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder. It is a diagnosis of two interrelated conditions: substance use disorder and mental health.
Co-occurring disorders diagnoses can include mood disorders such as:
Substance use disorders can also be co-occurring disorders, such as:
Identifying how mental health issues and substance abuse disorders overlap among veterans is critical to finding the proper treatment programs for their condition.
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Uncontrollable drinking doesn’t just harm the drinker’s health. If left untreated, AUD can take a massive toll on a veteran’s interpersonal life, career, and well-being.
The most common consequences of alcohol abuse on veterans include:
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that 33,129 veterans experienced homelessness in 2023. While this number has declined by 55.3% since 2010, veterans still experience homelessness at rates exceeding their representation in the general population.10
Homelessness in the veteran population is attributed to these factors:
Since 2010, suicide rates have been consistently higher among veterans than nonveteran adults.11 Veterans who had multiple deployments or faced life-threatening circumstances have the most significant risk of harming themselves.
The risk of suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts, and completed suicide is drastically higher among those with AUD than the general population.12 Because veterans have higher rates of AUD than the general population, they’re at higher risk of alcohol-induced death by suicide than the general population.
AUD can increase the risk of domestic violence, assault, and child neglect or abuse.
Rates of domestic or intimate partner violence are higher among veterans than the general population, likely because of the high rates of AUD co-occurring with factors like PTSD, depression, and the unique pressures that military life places on intimate relationships.
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Substance use disorders and mental health disorders can negatively impact veterans’ family dynamics when they return to civilian life.
This can affect the following family members:
Partners of veterans with a co-occurring substance use disorder tend to experience lower satisfaction in relationships the first year after a veteran returns home.
Lower relationship satisfaction can come from:
Children of veteran parents with AUD may suffer mental and emotional distress that impacts them for a lifetime.
Children may respond by:
Children whose parents abuse alcohol are less likely to receive the care they need, which can contribute to compounded problems, including mental health and substance abuse disorders later in life.
When planning and researching treatment for alcohol addiction, people should discuss their options with a healthcare professional. Especially in the case of co-occurring disorders, treatment must include a combination of methods to see long-term acceptance and results with sobriety.
Most people with an alcohol use disorder can benefit from some form of therapy, including:
Three medications are currently FDA-approved to treat alcohol use disorder, namely naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram. These medications are non-addictive and help manage alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
Working with a healthcare professional to identify and change behaviors contributing to uncontrollable drinking can prove pivotal to a veteran recovering from AUD. They may suggest cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational enhancement therapy, or mindfulness-based interventions.
Mutual support groups allow veterans and civilians recovering from alcohol use disorder to build a community around recovery.
Options include joining:
Most meetings are at low or no cost and offer convenient times and locations.
The VA offers several treatment options for veterans suffering from substance use problems. The services offered depend on the veteran’s specific needs and include13:
The VA also offers treatment and support for health conditions related to alcohol use disorder, such as PTSD and depression.
Veterans can get medical and mental health care for AUD at their local VA Medical Center.
The Veterans Health Administration is the most extensive integrated healthcare system in the United States. It consists of 172 VA Medical Centers and 1,138 outpatient sites.
VA Medical Centers offer a range of services for enrolled veterans, including:
The VA Community Care Network (CCN) is the VA’s direct link with licensed community health care providers, covering all U.S. states and territories.
Healthcare services through CCN include:14
The veteran’s VA provider and VA medical facility staff members will work with the veteran to determine their eligibility for community care. Once eligibility is confirmed, the veteran can make an appointment with a provider from the CCN network.
The Veterans Affairs (VA) defines disability as the inability to secure and maintain substantially gainful employment due to service-connected disabilities. To be eligible for benefits, veterans must prove their disability developed during active military service.
If alcoholism results from willful misconduct (an intentional act disregarding a known risk), the veteran won’t be eligible for service connection and VA disability benefits.
However, if alcohol use disorder develops due to a service-connected condition such as PTSD, veterans may be eligible for VA benefits for their secondary illness.
The VA uses a disability rating that provides compensation coverage based on a disability severity rating scale ranging from 0 to 100%. The higher your disability falls on the scale, the more financial assistance you may claim for your treatment.
The VA typically rates alcohol use disorder co-occurring conditions at 70%.
Submitting a claim for VA benefits can be a complicated and lengthy process. Contacting a veterans ' law attorney is the most effective way to ensure eligibility.
Veterans’ law attorneys assist by:
Check out website resources such as the US Department of Veteran Affairs Website for more information on VA benefits or to find your local VA medical center.
Additional resources are available through the Department of Health and Human Services Website for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or SAMHSA.
AUD among military veterans is a prevalent concern affecting themselves, their friends, and their family. It can come from mental health problems tied to a traumatic event, mental disorders, or chronic pain from sustained injuries.
Developing alcohol dependence may be an attempt to relieve other co-occurring disorders, which must be treated with the veteran’s alcoholism to recover fully.
Under the VA CCN or local treatment centers, a veteran may receive assistance with their addiction treatment to aid their recovery.
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