Society has a way of rationalizing substance use disorder (SUD). In reality, the struggles of life experiences, surroundings and personal choices directly impact a person’s ability to cope. Unfortunately, many turn to substances, including drugs and alcohol, to overcome this turmoil. Among veterans, there is a disturbing increase in the incidence of drug abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders, reports Military.com.
Veterans are some of the most highly-respected people in the U.S. Although the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has taken steps to help them after service, veterans may fall through the cracks, which are filled with tragedy and loss. However, awareness of this growing problem could be a viable solution, and you need to understand a few things about it.
Veterans With Behavioral Health Problems
In a recent report by the VA, the prevalence of mental health disorders and substance abuse among veterans increased dramatically. Since 2001, the prevalence rate has increased to 40 percent, reflecting a 13-percent spike. Unfortunately, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) appears to be a major influence in this trend. In fact, the symptoms of PTSD can easily mirror the symptoms of other major mental health disorders.
For example, PTSD can cause problems falling asleep, anxiety or depression, reports the VA. As a result, obtaining an accurate diagnosis can be difficult at best. If a veteran fails to get help for PTSD, he or she may turn to drugs or alcohol.
How Many Veterans Abuse Drugs or Alcohol?
Being a veteran puts a person at heightened risk for PTSD and SUD. According to the VA, more than 20 percent of veterans with PTSD also suffer from SUD. SUD also includes the abuse of alcohol. In other words, veterans are more likely to be binge or heavy drinkers. This is comorbidity. By definition, each condition only contributes to the overall worsening of both conditions.
Although alcohol may provide a temporary distraction, the underlying problem remains, and the cycle of SUD and struggle continues. The problem comes down to a simple concept: veterans suffering from PTSD are self-medicating through drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, self-medicating is a term used very loosely in modernity. It can apply to drugs, alcohol and even unhealthy relationships. But, understanding how mental health disorders increase risk for SUD is essential to turning the tide.
Why Do Mental Health Disorders Increase Risk for Drug Abuse?
Mental health disorders inhibit a person’s ability to control their thoughts, and in some cases, mental health illnesses can influence a person’s actions.
For example, hallucinations or delusions cause a person to see, feel or hear things that are not really there. This can create an ongoing, hostile environment, which only serves to strengthen the “self-medicating” argument in an affected person’s mind.
Unfortunately, affected veterans may not even realize this pattern of irrational thinking exists, which contributes to the exacerbation of SUD and PTSD symptoms. In fact, a study of hospital-admission data indicates most veterans seeking treatment for an SUD abuse alcohol more than any other substance, reports the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Compared to SUD admissions of non-veterans, 28-percent more veterans are admitted to behavioral health treatment facilities for alcohol abuse. After alcohol, only 10.7 percent of veterans admitted to treatment abuse heroin. Ultimately, the key to reducing the surge of SUD and PTSD among veterans lies in recognizing the warning signs of alcohol abuse. However, the VA also publishes a confidential self-assessment online for veterans to help determine if they are suffering from SUD.
Treatment Must Be Comprehensive
Treating SUD and PTSD is complex. Both conditions must be treated concurrently to be effective. This concept is true among all people with co-occurring mental health disorders. It is also important to remember that SUD is a mental health illness. In other words, the symptoms of SUD may mask other underlying mental health disorders.
For example, SUD may hide PTSD and vice versa. Underlying physical health problems can also contribute to the symptomology. According to the Daily Journal, substance use can lead to increased heart rate or anxiety. Yet, these symptoms also reflect PTSD, and the risk of suffering a life-threatening physical event increases as SUD and PTSD progress.
In addition, veterans may be living with an immeasurable amount of guilt and shame over their inability to cope. Therefore, treatment must also be proactive, encouraging veterans to continue treatment even when hope feels out of reach. Many treatment options for PTSD and SUD comorbidity revolve around behavioral therapies, which include the following:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Prolonged exposure therapy.
- Behavioral couples’ therapy.
If necessary, medications can also help to manage long-term withdrawal symptoms and symptoms of PTSD. However, short-term withdrawal among individuals with severe alcohol abuse can be life-threatening. Consequently, medical supervision during detox is necessary for people in this “severe” category of alcohol abuse.
Living with a mental health disorder is hard enough to manage, but if it is compounded with substance abuse, the challenges can be overwhelming and terrifying. Yet, the increasing prevalence of substance abuse among veterans with co-occurring mental health disorders suggests the information has fallen on deaf ears for more than a decade.
As a clinical or program director, social worker, caregiver or other health professional, you need to learn how to recognize at-risk veterans as soon as warning signs appear. This may include erratic behaviors or increased drinking habits. Ultimately, you can learn to use this information to forge better intervention methods and standard practices in caring for veterans with any mental illness, especially when it includes substance abuse.