It’s no secret that serving in the military is challenging and can have a negative effect on mental health. Between rigorous physical training, time away from family, and exposure to combat, military work takes its toll. It is no surprise, then, that those in this line of work are at a heightened risk of substance use disorders.

Addiction Statistics for Veterans and Active Duty Military

Researchers have analyzed addiction statistics to determine the severity of substance abuse among veterans and active duty military members. Some research shows that around 11 percent of veterans meet the criteria for a substance use disorder the first time they present to the VA system for services, and these disorders are more common among male when compared to female veterans. More specifically, at a given time, around 10.5 percent of male veterans have an alcohol use disorder, compared to 4.8 percent of female veterans. Furthermore, about 4.8 percent of male veterans and 2.4 percent of females have drug use disorders.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), just over one out of ten veterans have had a substance use disorder diagnosis at some point, which is a little higher than the rate among the general population. The increased risk among veterans occurs mostly among men in the age range of 18 to 25 years, suggesting that younger male veterans are especially susceptible to addiction.

Among active duty military personnel, heavy drinking is particularly problematic. For example, recent data show that around one-third of active duty military members engage in binge drinking, which is higher than the one-fourth of the general population that binge drinks. Active duty members have very low rates of illegal drug use, likely because they are subjected to drug screenings and could face discharge if they are found to be using illegal substances. Once they return to civilian life and begin to recover from the challenges associated with military service, their risk of drug use increases.

Opioid Use and Abuse Among Veterans

Another concern that may be unique to veterans is the misuse of opioids for pain management. Data indicates that around 9 percent of veterans experience severe pain, which is higher than the 6.4 percent rate reported among non-veterans. Given this fact, there has been an increase in opioid prescriptions for veterans, as well as an increase in opioid overdose deaths. Most overdoses among veterans are from heroin and synthetic opioids, suggesting that veterans may be turning to illegal opioids, perhaps to manage pain or because they are easier to obtain than prescription pills.

Factors Contributing to Substance Abuse Among Veterans and Active Duty Military Members

While pain from the demands of military service may lead some veterans and military members to abuse opioids, this is not the only factor linked to substance abuse among this group. Additional risk factors for addiction among veterans and active duty military are as follows:

  • The stress associated with deployment
  • The challenge of reintegrating into civilian life after deployment or discharge from service
  • Coping with combat exposure
  • Co-occurring mental health issues, like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a strong risk factor for substance use disorders among veterans. In fact, among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, 63 percent who met diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder also had PTSD. Abuse of drugs and alcohol may be a coping mechanism to deal with PTSD symptoms, which can include flashbacks, nightmares, extreme anger, emotional detachment, and avoidance of situations that are linked to trauma.

Treatment for Veterans

Veterans and military personnel who are living with substance use disorders need treatment that is sensitive to their needs. Based upon the high overlap between addiction and mental health conditions among this population, a provider that is qualified to treat both mental illness and substance use disorders is likely the best option.

Virtual & Online Treatment Options

Another consideration is the fact that stigma may be a barrier to treatment-seeking among veterans and military personnel. At iRecoveryUSA, we offer online services through our telehealth portal, so you can receive treatment from the privacy of home. We are qualified to provide dual diagnosis care, in addition to medication-assisted treatment, so we are prepared to meet the needs of military members and veterans.