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Unique Challenges in Addiction Treatment for Veterans

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Addiction is a public health concern that affects millions of people regardless of education or profession, but substance use disorders can be particularly challenging for veterans. Military service can expose individuals to a range of stressful and distressing experiences, which can increase their risk of developing a dependence on drugs or alcohol. These include a lack of social support, trauma, and the stigma military members face when they ask for mental health treatment.

Guardian Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for individuals suffering from substance misuse, regardless of their history, the severity of their condition, or mental health challenges. Our programs and individualized treatment plans include a wide variety of therapies, trauma-informed services, and recreational activities clinically proven to aid in the recovery process. If you or a loved one needs professional help for addiction and is ready to reclaim their life, contact us today to learn more about many therapeutic approaches to treatment and multiple levels of care.

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Risk Factors & Pervasiveness of Substance Use Disorders Among Military Veterans

Substance use disorders (SUDs) are a significant concern among military veterans, and there are several risk factors that can contribute to their development.

Some of the Risk Factors Include:

  • Exposure to trauma and combat, leading to the development of mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression.
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders, which often lead to a desire for self-medication with drugs or alcohol and, ultimately, addiction.
  • Chronic pain, which is common among veterans, can lead to the overuse of addictive opioid painkillers.
  • Lack of social support and difficulty adjusting to civilian life after service, causing feelings of isolation, loneliness, depression, and substance use.
  • Economic hardship and difficulty finding employment appropriate for their skills and needs.

Because veterans often experience one or more of these significant risk factors, this contributes significantly to the pervasiveness of substance use among this population. According to Veterans Affairs, in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, about 1 in 10 returning veterans seen in VA had a problem with alcohol. (1) Statistics on substance misuse in veterans have found that among those who have substance use disorders, more than 80% misuse alcohol, 27% misuse illegal drugs, and 7% misuse both substances. (2)

Veteran Mental Health Facts & Statistics

The presence of mental illness and SUDs, also known as co-occurring disorders, is especially common in veterans. Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD can lead to substance use. Efforts to self-medicate symptoms or manage stress make vets more prone to developing SUDs.

Critical Veteran Mental Health Statistics Include:

  • Between 82-93% of veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq with a SUD had at least one co-occurring disorder. (3)
  • Veterans who have an SUD are 3–4 times more likely to be diagnosed with depression. (4)
  • Approximately 37-50% of veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, had at least one mental illness. (5)
  • Nearly 10% of veterans have symptoms of anxiety, while about 11% have symptoms of depression. (6)
  • In 2017, veterans were 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than civilians. (#)
    Approximately 30% of veterans who committed suicide had misused substances beforehand. (7)
  • Almost 20% of veterans have thought about suicide, and nearly 15% have tried to commit suicide. (8) Combat-related Trauma & the Cycle of Addiction in Veterans

Combat-related trauma can lead to a cycle of addiction in veterans, and this is one reason why it is so important to treat co-occurring mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and any other mental health disorders that might motivate substance misuse as a means of self-medication.

Addiction typically comes with its own set of adversities, such as job loss, relationship strain, and legal and financial issues. These negative consequences can contribute to the individual’s need to self-medicate through substances due to the stress and spiraling feelings of hopelessness. Moreover, further trauma, such as drunk driving accidents, can result, and this, in addition to escalating drug or alcohol use, leads to worsening mental health issues, such as severe depression and suicidal thoughts.

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The Connection Between Substance Use in Veterans & Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) results from exposure to traumatic events such as combat, having your life threatened, or sexual trauma—all of which can occur while in the military. Symptoms can affect many different life areas, including sleep, employment, social relationships, and the ability to participate in some activities. Veterans with PTSD may start drinking or using drugs to try to relieve their symptoms.

Statistics Related to PTSD & Substance Use Include:

  • At some point in their lives, 7 of every 100 veterans (or 7%) will have PTSD. This increases to 29% for those serving in operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF). (9)
  • Veterans who have a SUD are 3 to 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD. (10)

More than 20% of veterans diagnosed with PTSD have co-occurring disorders. (11)

Veteran Dual Diagnosis Addiction Treatment & Veteran-Specific Substance Use Programs

Veterans with addiction issues may also have co-occurring mental health disorders, such as PTSD, depression, or anxiety. Treating all conditions simultaneously is known as dual diagnosis addiction treatment.

  • Components of Dual Diagnosis Treatment Include:
  • Integrated Treatment—This involves addressing both substance use disorders and mental health disorders in combination, as well as any other medical conditions.
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment—MAT is used to manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings during detox and ongoing treatment.
  • Behavioral Therapies—These include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
  • Peer Support—Groups such as the Veterans Recovery Program or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), can provide additional support and resources to veterans in recovery.

Veteran-specific substance use programs cater to the unique needs of former military members. These programs may offer specialized services, such as trauma-focused therapy, military culture sensitivity training, and peer support from other veterans. Examples of veteran-specific substance use programs include the VA’s Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Program and the Wounded Warrior Project’s Warrior Care Network.

Unique Challenges in Veteran Addiction & the Role of Veteran’s Healthcare

Veterans with addiction face unique challenges as they attempt to reintegrate into civilian life. One, they continue to face the stigma associated with mental health and substance use disorders, which may be even greater for those in the military. They may also experience a sense of disconnection and isolation from civilian life, especially after long periods of active enrollment.

Veterans with substance use disorders may face challenges finding and maintaining employment due to stigma, legal issues, or health concerns, and may struggle with homelessness or housing instability.  Substance use disorders can have long-term health consequences, such as liver damage, respiratory problems, and heart disease. Veterans with substance use disorders may also struggle with chronic pain, which can contribute to substance use, especially the misuse of painkillers.

Overall, more than half (54%) of VA users with mental health care needs find the process of getting this care to be “very or somewhat burdensome.” (12) For all of these reasons and more, the Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare system plays a critical role in addiction treatment and support for veterans.

VA Healthcare Services & programs for Addiction Treatment Include:

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Individuals with medical and mental health issues and who have suffered trauma may be more likely to misuse substances and develop an addiction. Those who’ve been in the military often find that getting the help they need may be especially difficult due to the stigma against seeking treatment for these problems and admitting they need professional help. Unfortunately, people with severe and complex psychiatric disorders are those who need treatment the most for their addiction and underlying conditions like PTSD.

Contact Guardian Recovery today if you or a loved one are former military members and are struggling with substance use. Critically, we also offer treatment to individuals from all professional and educational backgrounds. To speak to a skilled Treatment Advisor, reach out to us for a free, no-obligation health insurance benefits check and learn how we can help you reclaim your life from drugs and alcohol.


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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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