Military service people experience many challenges as a part of their regular duties. Though there is a wide variety of jobs in the service, many service members experience an increased risk of harm through combat situations. However, combat, injuries, and high stress also contribute to a higher risk of mental health problems as well.
Veterans experience higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than civilians. And like other mental health problems, PTSD is associated with substance use disorders. Treating both disorders is the best way to achieve sobriety and freedom from mental health issues. It is important for veterans to have access to dual diagnosis treatment to effectively address the disorders.
Learn more about the relationship between PTSD and addiction and how veterans can be treated.
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health disorder caused by a stressful, frightening, or traumatic event. PTSD can cause people to have panic attacks, flashbacks, and general feelings of anxiety. Specific events or objects could trigger negative symptoms that remind the person of the traumatic event.
For example, if someone gets into a car accident that leaves them with PTSD, driving or getting into a car might cause anxiety or flashbacks. Nightmares and intrusive thoughts that cause you to relive a traumatic event are also common symptoms of PTSD.
Car accidents are among the most common sources of PTSD for civilians, along with physical attacks or sexual assault. However, veterans and military service people are at a higher risk of developing the disorder from combat situations and other high-stress issues.
In some cases, prolonged periods of high stress rather than one traumatic event can cause PTSD. In addition to psychological symptoms, a person with PTSD may also exhibit behavioral symptoms like avoidance of potentially triggering places or hypervigilance. PTSD is also related to insomnia, which can worsen stress and lead to outbursts and anger issues.
Though accidents and disasters are capable of causing PTSD, interpersonal attacks may be more likely to cause PTSD. Civilians may experience this as the result of a mugging or assault. Veterans are more likely to experience attacks as a part of their jobs when in active combat duty, which means they may have a higher risk of developing the disorder.
Different people may experience PTSD differently. Women are more likely than men to develop PTSD after a traumatic event. Children often don’t exhibit anxiety symptoms but often act out traumatic events through play.
PTSD is officially diagnosed with the symptoms that persist for more than a month, and other common disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, are ruled out.
How Many People Have PTSD?
Traumatic experiences are fairly common, and it is estimated that 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women go through events that can be considered traumatic, including accidents and assaults. Not everyone who experiences a frightening event develops PTSD. Some people recover quickly from trauma, and others may experience other mental health issues like depression or generalized anxiety in the wake of a negative experience.
However, it’s important to note that developing PTSD can happen to anyone, and it’s not a sign of weakness to be ashamed of. In fact, there may be some biological factors passed down through genetics that make you more or less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
About 7 percent to 8 percent of people will experience PTSD at some point in their lifetime. In a given year, it can affect an estimated 8 million people. Women have a higher risk of PTSD, with 10 percent experiencing the disorder compared to the 4 percent of men who develop it. However, the percentage for veterans is higher for both men and women because of their higher likelihood of experiencing combat, injury, and witnessing death.
Studies have found that veterans of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan experience PTSD at high rates. One study of 60,000 veterans found that 13.5 percent were diagnosed with PTSD. Other studies found higher rates of 20 to 30 percent. Some believe the nature of modern wars might contribute to higher rates of PTSD, especially among service people who fight against guerrilla ambush tactics in urban settings.
PTSD’s Link to Addiction
PTSD can cause various other problems if left untreated. It can lead to issues like sleeplessness, anger issues, depression, and anxiety. Veterans with PTSD also have a higher rate of suicide than veterans without PTSD. There is also a strong link between PTSD and substance use disorders. Addiction involves compulsive drug or alcohol use despite the consequences.
It is a disease of the brain’s reward center, the part of your brain that releases feel-good chemicals in response to certain activities like eating a good meal. Drugs and alcohol can also affect levels of feel-good chemicals in your body, which can cause your brain to confuse the substance with a healthy activity.
Because your brain has learned that drugs or alcohol can provide a boost to your feel-good chemicals, whenever you experience negative emotions or stress, you may feel powerful compulsions to use. After a while, using may become routine, and you’ll feel like you need to use the substance just to feel normal.
In many cases, substance misuse may begin as a method of self-medication. For instance, alcohol is a depressant that can dull powerful emotions like anxiety. Someone with PTSD may use alcohol to cope with anxiety or panic symptoms. However, alcohol dependence may worsen anxiety. Alcohol is one of the most common substances of abuse among veterans, especially veterans with PTSD.
It’s estimated that around 20 percent of veterans with PTSD also have a substance use disorder. Nicotine addiction is also significantly more common among veterans with PTSD. About 10 percent of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have a drug or alcohol use problem. Veterans also tend to binge drink, which increases their chances of developing alcohol use disorder or other health issues.
Both disorders feed off each other. PTSD causes a reliance on substance misuse and substance misuse worsens PTSD symptoms.
What is Dual Diagnosis?
Dual diagnosis is a term that is used in mental health and substance use disorder treatment. It refers to a treatment course that’s intended to address multiple co-occurring issues. Dual diagnosis is important because issues like substance use disorders and mental health problems often go together and worsen each other. In the past, these issues may have been treated separately or at different times, which is less effective.
If one problem is addressed while the other is ignored, the persisting issue may trigger a relapse of the other disorder. For instance, if you try to treat addiction without treating PTSD, anxiety, and panic, symptoms could lead to a relapse of drug or alcohol use as a way to self-medication or self-soothe.
Dual diagnosis will involve treatment for both issues as a part of the same treatment plan. Resolving underlying issues like past trauma may help address PTSD and an SUD. At the same time, it’s important to treat issues associated with substance abuse like medical problems and drug cravings as well.