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Understanding Substance Abuse Among Veterans with PTSD

Turning Point

The U.S. established Veterans Day as a yearly federal holiday honoring the sacrifices made by past and present service members. For many, this sacrifice was their life. But even those who survived with injuries or walked away physically unscathed may continue to suffer every single day. For these veterans, the sacrifice was their mental health.

Substance abuse is exceedingly common among veterans because of the psychological repercussions of the traumatic events they experienced during their service. According to the National Center for PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Substance Use Disorder (SUD) are significantly related among service members.

Here are a few statistics about the relationship between PTSD and SUD in veterans:

  • More than a quarter of those with PTSD also have SUD.
  • Roughly 30% of those seeking treatment for SUD have PTSD.
  • Approximately 10% of those who return from Iraq and Afghanistan have a problem with substance use.

What Is PTSD, and Why Is It Related to SUD?

Any traumatic event or series of events (e.g. combat, assault, terrorism, natural disaster, etc.) can trigger PTSD. Therefore, a veteran does not need to have been injured to develop this disorder. Witnessing the injuries or deaths or their fellow service members and experiencing constant threats to their physical safety are enough to incur lasting psychological damages. For those who develop PTSD, the everyday challenges of life may become insurmountable.

Symptoms of PTSD may include:

  • Flashbacks of the event
  • Avoiding reminders of the event
  • Feelings of numbness, anger, loss of joy, or depression

To cope with these debilitating symptoms, many turn to substances. Veterans may use certain drugs to help them sleep, physically relax, or stifle painful flashbacks. In the process, they may become reliant on and eventually addicted to alcohol, nicotine, painkillers, or illegal substances as a means of numbing or reducing their psychological suffering.

While originally a means of self-medicating, SUD can destroy a veteran’s ability to maintain relationships, succeed in school, stay employed, and/or heal from the original source of their pain. Those with PTSD need to fully process their experiences, and alcohol or substance abuse typically delays that processing and, therefore, a full recovery.

Treatment Options for Veterans with PTSD and SUD

These concurrent disorders may leave a veteran feeling powerless. According to the National Center for PTSD, however, proper treatment leads to recovery for many patients. PTSD and SUD influence and worsen each other, so for those suffering from both disorders, treating them at the same time is key.

The National Center for PTSD lists the following trauma-focused psychotherapies to help those with PTSD process their traumatic experiences:

  • Cognitive Processing Therapy
  • Prolonged Exposure
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

For those with SUD, treatment includes:

  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Relapse prevention strategies
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Contingency management

What Is PTSD, and Why Is It Related to SUD?

Any traumatic event or series of events (e.g. combat, assault, terrorism, natural disaster, etc.) can trigger PTSD. Therefore, a veteran does not need to have been injured to develop this disorder. Witnessing the injuries or deaths or their fellow service members and experiencing constant threats to their physical safety are enough to incur lasting psychological damages. For those who develop PTSD, the everyday challenges of life may become insurmountable.

Symptoms of PTSD may include:

  • Flashbacks of the event
  • Avoiding reminders of the event
  • Feelings of numbness, anger, loss of joy, or depression

To cope with these debilitating symptoms, many turn to substances. Veterans may use certain drugs to help them sleep, physically relax, or stifle painful flashbacks. In the process, they may become reliant on and eventually addicted to alcohol, nicotine, painkillers, or illegal substances as a means of numbing or reducing their psychological suffering.

While originally a means of self-medicating, SUD can destroy a veteran’s ability to maintain relationships, succeed in school, stay employed, and/or heal from the original source of their pain. Those with PTSD need to fully process their experiences, and alcohol or substance abuse typically delays that processing and, therefore, a full recovery.

Treatment Options for Veterans with PTSD and SUD

These concurrent disorders may leave a veteran feeling powerless. According to the National Center for PTSD, however, proper treatment leads to recovery for many patients. PTSD and SUD influence and worsen each other, so for those suffering from both disorders, treating them at the same time is key.

The National Center for PTSD lists the following trauma-focused psychotherapies to help those with PTSD process their traumatic experiences:

  • Cognitive Processing Therapy
  • Prolonged Exposure
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

For those with SUD, treatment includes:

  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Relapse prevention strategies
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Contingency management

COPE is an option for veterans with both disorders because it combines treatment methods into one cohesive therapy. Veterans may also want to seek treatment for pain, anger issues, sleep problems, and other specific symptoms.

Are You a Veteran Struggling with PTSD and SUD?

If you are experiencing these symptoms, PTSD-SUD specialists believe you will benefit from professional treatment. With proper care, you can begin to heal and eventually return to life as it was before your trauma. Here at Turning Point, we help those with SUD not only cope with their addictions but also develop strategies to manage life’s challenges in a healthier way.

Call Turning Point today at (973) 380-0905 or get in touch with us online. No matter what you have experienced, we will treat you with the respect and dignity you deserve.

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