Veterans and Substance Abuse

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Veterans grapple with stress from numerous deployments and exposure to wars. The time spent in violent and traumatic situations often leaves them with mental scars and physical injuries that some of them choose to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

Although alcohol and prescription drug abuse are prominent among veterans, illicit drug use is lower among veterans than among their civilian counterparts. A 2008 Department of Defense survey revealed that 2.3 percent of service members were past-month illicit drug users, compared to 12 percent of civilians. The low usage of illicit drugs might be due to the strict no-drug policy in the military.

In contrast, veterans boast a higher rate of prescription drug use than civilians do. Eleven percent of military personnel admitted to misusing prescription drugs in 2008, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. From 2001 to 2009, the rate of opioids prescribed to military members has quadrupled, mainly because of combat-related injuries and muscle strains.

Life after the military may prove challenging to some veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, traumatic brain injuries or lingering pain from physical injuries. One in four Iraq and Afghanistan veteran presented symptoms of a mental disorder while one in six reported experiencing PTSD symptoms, according to NIDA. Some of these illnesses and injuries call for opioid pain relievers; however, some veterans misuse their prescriptions.

Mental illnesses such as PTSD typically go hand in hand with substance use disorders. Over 20 percent of veterans suffering from PTSD also suffer from a substance use disorder. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, former military personnel tend to engage in excessive drinking to cope with bad memories or trauma from the war.

Co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders bring about:

  • Sleeping disorders —  which may encourage self-medication with sleeping medication or alcohol

  • Mood swings — which may worsen with the use of drugs or alcohol

  • Avoidance of issues — substance use may encourage avoidance of problems, undermining any treatment progress

Military suicide rates have surpassed civilian rates. From 2005 to 2009, over 1,100 military members committed suicide, 29 percent of which involved drugs and alcohol. Prescription drugs accounted for one in three suicides in 2009.

War veterans with a history of substance abuse tend to suffer from PTSD, substance dependence and suicidal thoughts and attempts. A 2012 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed that PTSD, depression and combat exposures contributed to veteran suicide. The researchers found that Vietnam War veterans suffering from PTSD were four times more likely to be suicidal.

The Institute of Medicine recommends a cultural shift in the military aimed at destigmatizing drug use and encouraging people to seek treatment. In a report ordered by the Department of Defense, the IOM explained that a more comprehensive insurance coverage would encourage service members to seek outpatient substance abuse treatment. The report also mentioned the importance of equipping health care providers with the necessary tools to screen military personnel for drug and alcohol abuse and refer them to treatment.

To mitigate the prescription drug problem, the Army has limited the validity of prescriptions for opioids to six months and assigned a pharmacist to oversee soldiers who have multiple prescriptions. Government agencies collaborated with NIDA to fund research to better understand, prevent and treat substance use disorders and mental health problems among service members and veterans.


National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013, March). Substance Abuse in the Military. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2015, August 13). PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans. Retrieved from

Rozanov, V. & Carli, V. (2012, July 19). Suicide among War Veterans. Retrieved from (2014, September 29). Veterans and Military Families. Retrieved from

About the Author


Sonia Tagliareni is a writer and researcher for, an online resource that provides information about addiction and treatment. She is passionate about helping people. She started her professional writing career in 2012 and has since written for the finance, engineering, lifestyle and entertainment industry. Sonia holds a bachelor’s degree from the Florida Institute of Technology.