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Alcoholism in Veterans, and Options for Treatment

Being away from home, high injury risk, and reintegrating into civilian life are just a few of the daunting challenges that are part of the experience for military personnel in the United States. Alcohol misuse can become a way to cope with these circumstances, both during and after service. This can lead to alcohol addiction.

How Serious Is the Problem?

There are many veteran-specific resources for helping veterans to overcome addiction to alcohol or drugs. However, despite the availability of these resources, veterans make up a group that continues to experience consistently higher rates of alcohol addiction than the general population.

Alcohol misuse is reported by 65% of veterans as the reason for entering an addiction treatment program, making it the most common substance use disorder among military personnel.1

Veterans and PTSD

The connection between military service and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is well-established. PTSD, characterized by severe anxiety and/or guilt, often develops following exposure to some form of trauma, such as:

  • Gunfire
  • Explosions
  • Injuries
  • Inability to help an injured comrade
  • Hurting someone in combat

PTSD has its own set of symptoms, which can take hours or years to develop and diagnose. These symptoms can be severe and include:

  • Paranoia
  • Insomnia, nightmares, and other sleeping problems
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Flashbacks of traumatic events
  • Substance misuse

The PTSD-Alcoholism Link

The incredible amounts of stress experienced by military personnel exposed to trauma cause many to reach for alcohol in order to self-medicate and numb the pain. Nearly one in three veterans with PTSD also have a substance use disorder.2

While drinking may be effective over the short term for suppressing memories and reducing stress, it doesn’t allow the underlying condition of PTSD to be treated; in fact, alcohol can make PTSD worse over time.

The longer, more often, and more excessively a person drinks, the higher the risk of alcoholism becomes. Unfortunately, only half of veterans returning from deployment seek the treatment they need and, instead, choose to self-medicate or hide the problem. This may be due to the factors below.

Other Factors Which Influence Alcoholism Among Veterans

The reasons that that military personnel engage in drinking include:

  • Military culture
  • Sexual trauma
  • Combat exposure
  • Depression
  • Relationship problems
  • Reintegration into civilian life

Military Culture

According to a 2015 Rand study, drinking is seen as being part of accepted military culture by more than two-thirds of service members.3 Alcohol was also reported to be used as a way to connect with other service members and is considered to be a reward; many establishments offer alcohol at a discount to military personnel.

Sexual Trauma

Sexual trauma that occurs during military service is known as military sexual trauma or MST. This type of trauma can occur as the result of experiencing harassment, battery, or sexual assault during service, and it can lead to increased drinking that can cause alcoholism.

Combat Exposure

Military personnel who have been exposed to combat are more likely to engage in binge drinking. A Rand survey of health related behaviors revealed that one in three service members in active duty participated in binge drinking, which is defined as the consumption of five or more drinks in a single occasion.4

Depression

Depression is another factor that can lead to alcoholism in veterans. Feeling depression following military service may lead to increased drinking that can cause alcoholism, but increased drinking has also been found to cause depression.

Relationship Problems

Some service members who return home experience problems with their family members or marital partners. Typically, relationship problems can be attributed to the development of PTSD and the failure to be properly diagnosed or treated following military service.

Alcohol can become a way for a service member to cope with the stress and other symptoms associated with PTSD, as well as problems with family and marital relationships.

Reintegration into Civilian Life

Many veterans experience difficulty with reintegrating back into civilian life; they may experience financial instability or trouble with finding a job, or they may not be able to access support from family. The stress associated with these circumstances can lead to the development of PTSD and alcoholism.

What Are the Symptoms of Alcoholism?

Depressed soldier with bottle sitting in livig room

There are many signs that indicate a problem with alcohol. If you experience three or more of the following in one year, it’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible:

  • Having to drink more in order to get the same effect
  • Declining to participate in events and activities in order to drink
  • Trying to quit drinking on one or more occasion, but not being able to
  • Spending significant amounts of time drinking and recovering from alcohol’s effects
  • Being unable to control how much alcohol you consume
  • Having no memory of what happened during a drinking episode, also known as a blackout
  • Continuing to drink, despite the problems it causes
  • Feeling anxious, sweaty, nauseous, or shaky after you stop drinking
  • Being approached by family or friends with concern about your drinking
  • Attempting to hide how much you’re drinking

Have You Experienced These Feelings?

You may feel that drinking is helping you reduce your stress, and this may be the case right now. It may be that you are concerned about being perceived as weak for seeking help. Or, you may realize that you do have a problem with alcohol, but you may be feeling guilt or shame about it.

Many who are questioning whether they have a problem with alcohol also feel helpless about overcoming their addiction or feel as though they won’t be able to be helped. These are all very common thoughts and emotions to have when you’re unsure about whether or not your drinking has become a problem.

Why It’s So Important to Seek Help

Having a problematic relationship with alcohol can have effects that reach well beyond the person doing the drinking. When addiction develops, it can become a priority, becoming more important than your job, your family, your spouse, and everything that you used to enjoy.

When you have to drink more to get the same effects, your body pays a steep price. Continued and increasing use of alcohol can damage every organ and cause serious diseases like cancer and cirrhosis of the liver.

Both PTSD and alcoholism are entirely treatable. As well, it’s been proven that when both conditions are treated at the same time, a positive outcome is far more likely. Veterans from all backgrounds and of all ages that have received treatment for alcoholism have been able to achieve long-term recovery.

Taking the Next Step

Many veterans struggle with the effects of deployment, reintegration, PTSD, and so many other challenges by drinking. There is another way, and that is to get treatment. However, it’s important to seek residential treatment that’s specifically geared to veterans.

What Can You Expect in Treatment?

Whether for civilians or military veterans, rehabilitation for alcoholism and PTSD consists of similar elements. You may need to enter detox prior to beginning your treatment schedule. This stage helps you to stop drinking and also ensures your withdrawal symptoms are managed in a safe space.

Your treatment schedule will consist of participating in support groups. This provides the opportunity to listen to the stories of other veterans and share your own when you are ready. As well, you’ll benefit from one-on-one counseling and education sessions, where you’ll learn about healthy coping strategies and important life skills that will help you reintegrate into civilian life following treatment.

Finally, you will reside at the treatment center with other veterans who are also struggling with alcoholism, substance abuse, and PTSD. These and many other treatment elements are provided with a specific focus that considers the unique circumstances, emotions, and challenges that only veterans can understand.

Specialized Substance Use and Mental Health Treatment for Military Veterans

Close up of hands of psychologist making notes

For military veterans who need treatment, a program that is customized for what they’ve experienced can make all the difference.

Adelante Recovery Center’s treatment programs are immersive; veterans not only live on-site but benefit from 24-hour care. You will live in a safe and supportive environment that’s situated in a unique and beautiful location, just a mile away from the beach and ocean.

These peaceful and breathtaking accommodations include beautiful views of Catalina Island, an in-ground pool, spacious rooms, and treatment that is customized to meet your unique needs as a veteran, delivered by an educated and experienced team of addiction specialists.

If you’re a veteran who’s ready to overcome alcoholism, PTSD, or another addiction or mental health issue, our dual diagnosis program can help. Recovery is possible at Adelante; call us at 1-949-427-9099 to speak with an addiction specialist and start your recovery.

Sources:

  1. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-military-life
  2. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/substance_abuse_vet.asp
  3. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9955z7.html
  4. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9955z7.html