Substance abuse problems among veterans are more common than you might think. Research studies show that 5%-10% of veterans arriving home from battle develop some addictive disorder, which is much higher than the norm (White House Office of National Drug Control Policy). Although there are plenty of modern studies out there proving the connection between war and addiction, we’ve known for a while now that there’s something about war that triggers addiction.

  • Immediately following the Civil War of the late 1800’s, we saw an Epidemic of Opioid Addiction in the Southern white males, the demographic group that made up the Confederate army.
  • In the 1970s, during and after the Vietnam war, we saw rapidly increasing rates of Heroin addiction in the US, especially among those who had served in battle.
  • Cigarettes were so popular during World War I, that we’re still feeling the effects today. Although WWI happened nearly a century ago, smoking rates have been elevated ever since!
  • In addition to tobacco, Amphetamines and Alcohol were commonly abused substances during World War II.

Addiction in Veterans: Why does it happen?

Although addiction doesn’t have any one specific cause, we do know that certain aspects of the military experience can increase our risk. Battle related trauma, permanent injuries, isolation from our loved ones, and long periods of hospitalization: these are things that can happen to our troops during service, and they can radically increase our susceptibility to developing an addictive disorder.

The Role of Prescription Painkillers

All throughout military service, we’re at risk for sustaining injuries during training and combat. If our injuries are severe, we can end up connected to a morphine drip in a hospital bed for a long time, or discharged with a prescription for lots of rest and some strong pain pills. Although helpful for easing pain in the short-term, using these types of perfectly legal opiate painkillers is becoming the most common route to developing a serious addiction.

PTSD and Addiction

Although addiction is a problem for all veterans, it’s especially prevalent among those who have experienced direct exposure to combat.

To state the obvious, going through combat and being out on the battlefield is severely traumatizing. Out there, we see and experience violence and suffering to a degree that just doesn’t exist in normal civilian life. The sheer emotional intensity of our these experiences can lead to long-lasting psychological scars, causing us to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is one of the most debilitating mental illnesses, making day-to-day life sometimes feel impossible to get through. One of the potential symptoms of the disorder is increased substance abuse, which puts us at risk for developing an addiction later on.

In these cases, it’s important to remember that picking up the bottle, or using drugs, isn’t a sign of bad character, rather, it’s an attempt to self-medicate the debilitating anxiety, depression, flashbacks, and insomnia that also go along with PTSD and the experience of war. If you, your spouse, your child, or anyone else that you love is going through something similar, reach out to a rehab specializing in what veterans need. Compared to normal treatment centers, veteran rehabs will be able to expertly handle PTSD symptoms, and help you recover in the context of your military experience.