Alcohol is among the leaders when it comes to substances abused by veterans due to its availability and less of a stigma attached to its consumption. Illicit drug use occurs less often in the military than in the civilian population because of the stringent zero-tolerance policies. However, alcohol is abused at very high rates to cope with the stress of battle.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) backs up the information that military service members consume alcohol at a much higher rate than civilians. Veterans who struggle with alcohol use disorder likely began using alcohol during active duty as a means to cope with the stress or isolation brought on by war. An estimated ten percent of veterans that returned from Afghanistan and Iraq struggle with problems attributed to drugs or alcohol, with alcohol use disorders being the most prevalent among military personnel.
It’s common for military personnel to be exposed to traumatic events during combat. Many soldiers report witnessing the death of the opposition or on their team, which could contribute to high drinking rates. Those with more exposure to combat are linked to higher binge drinking rates than their peers.
Unfortunately, a number of veterans requiring treatment for alcohol use disorder will not receive it. It’s a troubling statistic since alcohol use among veterans leads to health problems, interpersonal violence, and early death.
Veteran Alcohol Abuse and Military Service
Those who serve in the military are prone to drinking, and young adults in their first three years of military service found that drinking increased while serving. Men are at greater risk, and in all four military branches, heavy drinking among men is nearly four times higher than women. There are various reasons behind drinking in the military, including the culture of the workplace. Those who work closely start sharing beliefs and practices around alcohol and peers will develop drinking rituals that include a drink before, after, or even during their job.
Navy service members reported established rituals around consuming alcohol and that heavy use is a common coping mechanism. Others reported binge drinking during deployment, and drinking after work as a cultural tradition by service members. Unfortunately, it may cause pressure to drink in those who otherwise avoid it altogether.
Another significant factor that plays into an increased rate of drinking throughout the military is access to the drug. The minimum age is lower in foreign countries to purchase alcohol than in the United States, and alcohol can easily be accessed while on base. Navy service members mention having no problem getting drinks at bars and hotels near the base. Another reason alcohol abuse is reported is to combat loneliness, stress, or use it as something to do during a dull period.
Alcohol use disorders are considered the most common form of substance use disorders (SUDs) in the military. In some cases, problematic drinking patterns occur during their stint in the military and will extend past active duty, which will continue to cause problems in their life once they become a veteran. It’s important to note that it’s not only veterans who drink heavily during active service who are at increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Veterans often abuse the substance for various reasons, including as a coping mechanism to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Why Are Veterans at Higher Risk of Alcohol Use Disorder?
There are various reasons and types of stress associated with military action that will increase the risk of alcohol use disorder or other substance use disorders in active-duty personnel and veterans. The most common of these include:
- An estimated 6,527 U.S. Army personnel that returned from deployment in Iraq screen positive for alcohol misuse – this translates to 30 percent of all members.
- Individuals with more combat experience have higher rates of binge drinking and heavy drinking than counterparts with less experience.
- Service members mention issues reintegrating into civilian life due to the significant culture shift. It’s reported as incredibly challenging and a reason why substance use rates are higher in veterans.
The risk of addiction relates to mental health challenges that arise, and it’s rare when a veteran who seeks treatment is only struggling with a substance use disorder. Co-occurring disorders are prevalent in those seeking help, meaning they are dealing with addiction and other mental health conditions. The most common mental health condition affecting veterans is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An estimated one-third of veterans are dealing with a substance use disorder and PTSD. Veterans who abuse alcohol and have PTSD will binge drink, another risk factor for an alcohol use disorder.
The most common symptoms of PTSD include:
- Negative mood
- Terrifying or intrusive thoughts
- Avoiding any reminders of the trauma
When dealing with PTSD, veterans might turn to alcohol for relief from these symptoms. It’s considered “self-medication.” While alcohol may solve their problems in the short-term, it will cause significant problems in the long run. Self-medication is associated with a lower quality of life and suicide. How do treatment centers help veterans with alcohol use disorder?
Approaching Veterans and Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol abuse can affect veterans of any gender, age, or military ranking. Addiction does not discriminate, and those who put themselves at risk by binge drinking or using it to cope are at increased risk of developing a substance use disorder. It’s important to remember that because someone has a problem with alcohol, they are not a bad person. There are many situations where veterans realize their drinking has reached rock bottom, and they reach out for guidance toward the help they need.
There are signs of dangerous drinking behaviors in veterans that include:
- Aggressive, irritable, or hostile behavior toward others.
- Physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, including nausea, shakiness, or insomnia.
- Losing interest in hobbies or personal & professional goals.
- Hiding alcohol around the house and drinking in private.
- Placing themselves in danger after drinking heavily, such as driving or other risky behavior.
If you notice any of these warning signs, it’s time to get help. Those who serve in the armed forces will encounter stressful and traumatic events regularly. There are millions in need of help, and local, national, and state officials remain focused on providing affordable alcohol recovery programs for veterans. These include specialized treatment facilities that recognize alcohol abuse and work to prevent it.
Veteran specific programs were created to prevent dangerous drinking patterns and treat co-occurring disorders. These treatment programs use individual therapies, family counseling sessions, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and medication-assisted treatment (MAT). With the assistance of alcohol treatment providers, veterans struggling with alcohol use disorder can set realistic goals to achieve their recovery.
You must keep in mind that each veteran’s recovery is different and must be taken at an individual pace. As their symptoms improve gradually, overcoming impulses and triggers will be easier to manage alone. An alcohol dependence will not suddenly disappear once the veteran completes rehab, and they must continue counseling and support groups to maintain long-term sobriety. Alcoholics Anonymous is an extremely beneficial support group that implements 12 Steps and a support system for motivation during rough periods.