How Substance Abuse is Devastating Veterans?

If you didn’t know that there’s a drug and alcohol abuse problem in the veteran community, you’re not alone. Most media pays attention to underage drug abuse because it’s a bigger demographic. But veterans need help with this crisis too. 

Substance abuse disorders are rising in deployed soldiers. That means more veterans are moving into civilian life with a substance abuse problem.

It’s common for veterans to abuse alcohol or prescription drugs. However, veterans can abuse any kind of substance. And most vets never get treatment for substance abuse disorders. 

Whether you have a veteran in your life or you’re one yourself, here’s what you need to know about substance abuse and veterans:

Statistics on Substance Abuse Among Veterans

Did you know that the Veterans Affairs office treated over half a million veterans for drug-related health problems in 2017

Other sobering stats include:

  • 20% of veterans with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) also have substance abuse disorders
  • Drug use rates can be up to double in veterans compared to civilians
  • Opioid use disorder doubled within the VA system between 2002 and 2017
  • The VA treated 64,000 veterans for opioid use disorder in 2017

Substance abuse is more prevalent in veterans than you think. The consequences of this epidemic include increased suicide rates among veterans.  30% of veteran suicides are related to substance abuse. 

How Do Veterans Develop Substance Abuse?

Like any other disease, substance abuse disorder doesn’t happen without a reason. Veterans have risk factors that make them more likely to develop substance abuse.

Social Isolation and Substance Abuse

It’s common for vets to feel isolated after coming back to civilian life. They may feel like no one understands what they’ve been through.

These feelings can lead to depression and mood changes. Some vets deal with this stress by self-medicating with alcohol or other substances.

Only 1% of the United States population is a veteran.  When you come back to civilian life, you might feel like an outsider. No matter how much your community wants to understand you, you feel like they can’t.

These feelings are common but most vets don’t get help for them. Turning to alcohol seems easier than setting up a therapy appointment. But in the long term, there are safer ways to cope.

Military Culture and Substance Abuse

Illicit drugs are taboo in the military, but that doesn’t mean everyone is sober. Alcohol use is a part of military culture and so is smoking tobacco. That’s because they’re both legal psychoactive drugs so their use is accepted.

Both alcohol and nicotine are addictive. Using alcohol or smoking habitually can lead to physical dependence. 

In fact:

  • Service members report binge drinking more than any other profession
  • One in three service members is a binge drinker or has an alcohol use disorder
  • 30% of the Marine Corps reports smoking or vaping 
  • You’re 60% more likely to start smoking if you’re deployed

Heavy substance use while in the military can lead to a problem that lasts decades into civilian life.

Pain and Substance Abuse

Many service members suffer from traumatic injuries as part of their service. These injuries often come with lifelong effects, including pain. Over 66% of veterans report daily pain. 

Until the mid-late 2010s, the VA treated most chronic pain cases with opioids, muscle relaxers, and sedatives. These are drugs with potential for addiction—especially opioids.

VA doctors wrote 3.8 million prescriptions for opioids in 2009. By 2016, fatal opioid overdoses were increasing every year among vets. 

Trauma and Substance Abuse: How PTSD Plays a Role in Veterans’ Lives

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that happens after you experience severe trauma.

The signs and symptoms can include:

  • Agitation
  • Emotional flashbacks 
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Mood changes
  • Night terrors
  • Panic attacks 

We’re not sure why PTSD happens to some people, but it can be disabling. It’s more common in the veteran population because they experience more trauma. Up to 20% of Iraqi Freedom vets have PTSD every year. 

PTSD can lead to drug abuse in two ways:

  • Medications used to treat the disorder can be sedating and have addictive potential (e.g. Ativan)
  • Some veterans self-medicate PTSD symptoms using alcohol or other substances

What Types of Substances Do Veterans Abuse?

Veterans abuse all the same substances that the rest of the population does. But there are a few drugs that are more common among vets than others.

Alcohol and Veterans

Alcohol is the number-one drug that veterans abuse because it’s legal and socially acceptable.

Service members can’t use illegal drugs or they risk discharge. They may look for other ways to cope with military life without realizing that alcohol is just as risky as illicit drugs.

Binge drinking is common in service life. This often carries into an alcohol problem in civilian life.

Opioids and Veterans

Pain is a common complaint among veterans. In the past, it was common to treat chronic pain in the VA with opioids.

What wasn’t known back then is that opioids are addictive and dangerous to your health. You may think that opioids can’t hurt you if you use them as directed.

But that’s not true. Today, we know opioids can cause addiction with long-term use even if you use them exactly the way your doctor tells you to. You don’t have to abuse opioids to get addicted to them!

Some patients who develop addiction continue using the drug despite side effects. Others progress to heroin or illegal black-market painkillers.

Prescription Drugs and Veterans

Opioids aren’t the only prescription drug that’s caused problems with veterans. For instance, drugs that are commonly used to treat PTSD can cause addiction.

Some include:

  • Ativan
  • Librium
  • Klonopin
  • Valium
  • Xanax

Vets with PTSD often suffer from insomnia. Unfortunately, the drugs used to treat insomnia can cause addiction too.

Those include:

  • Ambien
  • Halcion
  • Restoril
  • Lunesta 
  • Sonata
  • Trazodone

It’s less common for vets to abuse insomnia or PTSD drugs, but it still happens. In some cases, it leads to other types of substance abuse. This is common if you develop tolerance or have your script limited.

Treatment Options for Veterans: How and Where They Can Get Help

It’s very common for vets to delay treatment, but you shouldn’t. The sooner you get help, the sooner you can take your life back!

You might put off treatment because:

  • You don’t want to deal with the Veterans Affairs office
  • You don’t know where to get treatment
  • You’re worried you’ll be the only vet in treatment
  • You’re not sure how to pay for treatment

None of those are good reasons to avoid getting help. You don’t have to get treatment through the VA (though it’s possible to do so).

You can find a treatment center that knows how to help vets. And there are ways to pay for treatment if you do the research.

Here’s how you can get help:

VA Treatment vs. Private Treatment for Drug Abuse

Veterans Affairs isn’t known for being the easiest treatment experience. It’s known that they are understaffed and overworked. The waitlist for drug abuse treatment with the VA can be months or years!

Another downside is that you don’t have control over where to go for rehab with the VA. There are usually a few approved rehab centers and you’ll be assigned one.

That aside, the VA isn’t your only option for substance abuse treatment. Private treatment is more accessible than you think. 

A variety of insurance and grant options can help you fund private treatment. You’re more likely to get the care you need with a private center, so do everything in your power to make it happen!

Paying for Private Treatment

You may be able to manage the cost of treatment with:

  • Private insurance: If you have insurance through a spouse, job, or healthcare marketplace, then your carrier might cover treatment in full or in part. Some examples of private insurance carriers include: United Healthcare, Cigna, and Aetna.
  • Affordable Care Act insurance: If you don’t qualify for private health insurance through other means, then the ACA lets you purchase subsidized plans that cover 60% to 90% of your care in some cases.
  • Medicaid: This is a government-sponsored healthcare plan that can cover treatment if you receive a referral. You qualify for Medicaid if you are older than 65, younger than 19, pregnant, have a child, or live under the poverty line.
  • Medicare: Medicare is similar to Medicaid, but for people over 65 or disabled. Many veterans are disabled or older, so you may qualify for Medicare easily. Talk to your local benefits office to learn more about applying for Medicare.
  • Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grants: This grant funds addiction treatment for people who are IV drug users. It also helps women who are pregnant or women with children. Some veterans meet these qualifications, so check with your local benefits office.

Finding a Veteran-Friendly Treatment Center

Many veterans avoid treatment because they feel like they won’t be understood. You’ve probably seen ads for treatment centers full of young civilians.

The key to being understood is to choose the right treatment center. Choosing the first center that you find in the phone book isn’t a good way to decide how to start your recovery.

Instead, be open to traveling for addiction help. This opens up your options to hundreds of treatment centers, one of which is sure to be the right choice for you!

From there, the best way to get compassionate treatment as a vet is to choose a treatment center that offers custom treatment. No two plans should be exactly the same, especially for complex cases like yours as a vet!

Get Treatment for Substance Abuse as a Vet

If you’re thinking about finding help, you’re not alone. Over 1.5 million vets abuse substances every year. 

You don’t have to be part of that number. Treatment is within reach, even if you’ve been putting it off. Now there are resources at your fingertips to help find and pay for treatment.

Substance abuse is a serious problem for vets. 17 vets died from suicide every day in 2017—and VA specialists say that substance abuse is part of why that number keeps rising.

Northeast Addictions Treatment Center Can Help

Northeast Addictions Treatment Center offers kind and compassionate care for everyone who enters our doors, vets included. We’re one of the best recovery options in greater Boston and Quincy!

Every treatment plan is built with you and your needs in mind. While no two plans are alike, some treatment strategies include:

  • Activities:  Your life in rehab includes enriching activities to help build your focus. This also helps you learn to express yourself in a way that’s not drug use. Art, yoga, or journaling can be valuable outlets in treatment.
  • Live-in care: Residential treatment means you’re always in good hands. Whether you have a question or you’re worried about relapse, there’s someone around to help. That’s a luxury that you don’t get anywhere except inpatient.
  • Medication-assisted treatment: Medication can help treat cravings for veterans with opioid or alcohol addiction. Suboxone is a common drug used for this purpose.
  • Symptom management: Mood changes and other symptoms can persist after detox is over. If you’re having a hard time with symptoms in recovery, we’re here to help you manage.
  • Therapy: Talk therapy helps you understand yourself and learn new strategies to cope without drugs. Group therapy can be especially helpful for vets since it’s common to feel isolated and alone in recovery.

Don’t wait any longer to start recovering. The sooner you start dealing with your substance abuse problem, the faster you can take your life back! Call Northeast Addictions Treatment Center today to get started!


  1. Truth Initiative for Tobacco-Free Lives. (2019, March 20).
  2. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans.
  3. Veterans of Foreign Wars Association. (n.d.). VA’s Drug Abuse Stats Are Sobering

Written by
Northeast Addition Editorial Team

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This page does not provide medical advice.