Veterans With PTSD and Addiction: Finding Treatment that Works | The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse

Veterans With PTSD and Addiction: Finding Treatment that Works

Veterans With PTSD and Addiction: Finding Treatment that Works

Veterans face many challenges when returning from military duty, including adjusting to civilian life and job and housing insecurity. One problem that is often overlooked is excessive alcohol or drug use, which can lead to addiction. 

As soldiers return from military duty, many fall victim to these problems. Sometimes, veterans misuse pain-relieving drugs, or opioids like OxyContin and Vicodin due to physical injuries from combat. It’s been reported that about 68,000 veterans are addicted to these type of drugs. Other times, veterans’ alcohol or drug use may be related to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. PTSD and alcohol and drug use in veterans frequently go hand in hand.

What is PTSD, and why does it affect so many soldiers?

PTSD is a psychological disorder that typically results from a traumatic experience, like undergoing or witnessing a life-threatening, horrifying, or dangerous event. PTSD is not uncommon among soldiers, especially those involved in combat, and its effects can be very disturbing and disruptive. Symptoms include constantly feeling on guard, experiencing nightmares, and having flashbacks to the traumatic event. People with PTSD often use alcohol or drugs in an attempt to self-medicate these troubling symptoms.

Almost one in three veterans seeking treatment for addiction also has PTSD, and over 20 percent of veterans with PTSD also have addiction. Approximately one in 10 soldiers returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who were seen in a Veterans Affairs hospital have had a problem with alcohol or other drugs.

The large number of veterans who experience both PTSD and addiction is particularly alarming: veterans who have both disorders often leave treatment early and have a worse chance of maintaining recovery and remaining substance-free.

What can be done to help?

The best way to help veterans suffering from PTSD and addiction is to ensure that they have access to quality treatment. Veterans need treatment that has been proven effective, that is tailored to their unique needs, and that addresses both disorders.

There are therapies available to treat both PTSD and addiction simultaneously, including:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
    • In CBT, a therapist helps patients with PTSD understand and alter how they think about the experienced trauma and its continuing effects, including how particular thoughts about the trauma cause stress and make their symptoms worse. In turn, they are assisted in altering their thought processes and learning to better cope with their symptoms. With help, veterans are less likely to cope by using alcohol or other drugs. CBT is also one of the main recommended therapies for treating addiction.
  • Exposure Therapy
    • Exposure therapy works by having the individual continually talk about the trauma with a therapist, while in a safe and controlled environment, helping the individual gain control over the thoughts and feelings that arise in relation to the trauma. When people with PTSD learn to manage their thoughts and feelings in this way, there is less of a chance that they will turn to alcohol or other drugs to cope.
  • Medications
    • Medications, particularly antidepressants, are recommended for veterans suffering from PTSD, and can be helpful in reducing the negative feelings that often lead people to self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs.

But to truly help veterans suffering from the debilitating disorders of PTSD and addiction, the stigma surrounding these conditions must be eliminated and treatments that have proven to work must be made available to them. 

 Kristen Pappacena, MA

 Kristen is a Research Associate at The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse

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