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Veterans and Opioid Addiction

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, with opioids driving the overwhelming majority of cases. While no group has been immune from this epidemic, military veterans have been hit particularly hard. Substance abuse in veterans is a growing problem. Fatal overdoses among US military veterans rose by 53% from 2010 to 2019, and most of those were due to opioids.

In fact, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA, for short), US military veterans are twice as likely to die from opioid overdose as civilians.

What causes substance abuse in military veterans is a complex subject, with mental, physiological, and sociological factors at play. Mental health issues in particular play a major role in driving substance abuse among veterans.

In this article, we’ll explore some causes of substance abuse in veterans, the dangers of opioids, and possible treatment options. If you are a veteran or know a veteran struggling with substance abuse, know that there is help available.

Substance Abuse in Veterans

The connection between substance abuse and veterans first gained wide exposure in the late sixties and early seventies. Studies showed one in five soldiers returning from Vietnam struggled with heroin addiction at some point during their deployment. However, unlike today, most did not continue their use after returning to civilian life.

According to National Survey on Drug Use and Health data from 2020, 12% of veterans have a substance abuse issue, which is higher than the US population as a whole. The picture gets even worse when looking at young male veterans. Among male veterans aged 18 to 24, over 30% have a substance use disorder (SUD).

There are many causes of substance abuse among veterans. The stresses of combat, deployment to countries where drugs are produced, loss of comrades, and difficulty adjusting to civilian life all play a role. Compounding the issue is the military’s culture of toughness and self-reliance, which sometimes stigmatizes seeking help.

Different SUDs can have different risk factors. For example, alcohol, the most commonly abused drug in the military, is deeply ingrained in military culture, with studies showing up to 43% of active-duty reporting binge drinking in the past month.

When it comes to opioid abuse among veterans, the primary drivers appear to be chronic pain from injuries during deployment and mental illness.

Veteran Substance Abuse Statistics

By far the most common substance for veterans to abuse is alcohol. Seven out of ten veterans who struggle with addiction abuse alcohol and 8.3% of all veterans have an alcohol abuse disorder (AUD).

Facts about substance abuse in veterans include:

  • Male veterans are twice as likely to receive a SUD diagnosis as female veterans
  • Almost two-and-a-half million veterans live with a SUD
  • Nearly 1.6 million veterans met the criteria for an AUD in 2020
  • Almost 300,000 veterans abuse illegal drugs
  • Seven percent of veterans (nearly 80,000) abuse both alcohol and illicit drugs
  • In 2018, 45,000 veterans were diagnosed with an addiction to heroin. By 2020, this figure rose to 57,000.

Substance abuse in veterans is commonly linked to increased rates of homelessness, physical and mental illness, suicide, and problems with home life and employment.

What are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs derived from the opium poppy plant. These drugs activate opioid receptors, which are nerve cells in the brain and body that block pain signals between the brain and the body. For this reason, medicinal professionals often prescribe opioids as prescription painkiller drugs. With that being said, opioids also come in the form of illicit drugs such as heroin.

There are also synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. These are so powerful an amount the size of a penny can easily kill a person.

The most common effect of using opioids is a feeling of intense euphoria.

Other side effects of opioid use include:

  • Sleepiness
  • Relaxation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Slowed breathing

Those feelings of well-being produced by opioids often lead to repeat use and, before long, dependence and addiction. This addiction, without professional help, is extremely difficult to break as it involves withdrawal symptoms that can be severe or even deadly.

Opioid Use Disorder in Military Veterans

Opioid addiction, also known as opioid use disorder (OUD, has become a significant problem for veterans. According to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly half a million veterans – 2.5% of the total – abused opioids in 2020. Eighty-eight thousand met the criteria for an OUD.

Overprescription of opioids is a major driver of substance abuse in veterans. The most commonly abused prescription painkillers by veterans are codeine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone. Veterans are prescribed opioid painkillers three times more often than civilians, and many go on to develop crippling addictions to their medications.

There are two main risk factors behind veteran opioid abuse: physical pain and mental illness. Many veterans first become addicted to opioids when being treated for chronic pain developed while serving. According to data from the Veterans Health Administration, veterans are 40% more likely to experience severe pain over a three-month period than non-veterans. More than a third of veterans in the VA healthcare system live with some type of chronic pain.

Veterans are also at increased risk for mental illness. This includes mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder, as well as anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many end up abusing opioids to escape from the psychological pain they endure.

Co-Occurring Disorders in Veterans that May Prompt Addiction

In general, those who struggle with mental illness are at a heightened risk for a substance abuse disorder. People with both a mental illness and a SUD suffer from co-occurring disorders. When doctors incorporate clinical care for the symptoms of co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders, they provide dual diagnosis treatment.

There are a variety of co-occurring disorders, but there are a few major ones veterans suffer from in particular.

PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can occur after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event, such as combat, a natural disaster, or a car accident. Symptoms of PTSD can include flashbacks, nightmares, and difficulty sleeping, as well as feelings of guilt, anger, and hopelessness. Sixty-three percent of veterans with SUDs also meet the criteria for PTSD.

Major Depressive Disorder and Substance Abuse in Veterans

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is a mental health condition with persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest or pleasure in activities.

According to the VA, around 20% of veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars experience symptoms of depression, and approximately 30% of veterans with depression also struggle with substance abuse.

Bipolar Disorder and Substance Abuse in Veterans

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that includes extreme mood swings, from episodes of mania to depression. According to data from the VA, around 18% of veterans seeking treatment for substance abuse also have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Substance abuse can make the symptoms of bipolar disorder worse, leading to a cycle of abuse and worsening mental health.

Resources for Veterans with Substance Abuse

Despite the hopelessness you or your veteran friend or family member may be feeling, substance abuse help for veterans is available. In fact, if the VA finds that your SUD results from physical pain or mental illness with a connection to your service, you may receive disability benefits. 

More specifically, Veterans Affairs substance abuse programs mention that coverage for conditions such as depression and PTSD is a part of VA benefits. You can find the application to apply here. You can also use the VA Location Finder to locate your nearest VA facility. Aside from that, there are official VA mental health services you can apply for as well.

If you are in search of other resources for veterans with substance abuse, you can also find help through the Veterans Crisis Line and the Wounded Warrior Project.

Veteran Addiction Assistance

At Royal Life Centers, we dedicate our clinical expertise to providing holistic and human-centered addiction treatment for veterans. For this reason, we offer affordable alcohol and drug rehab for veterans at each of our facilities in Arizona and Washington state.

Our addiction treatment centers include:


Veterans seek treatment at a lower rate than non-veterans. Often, veterans worry that asking for help is a sign of weakness or could even negatively impact their careers.

It is important to avoid letting any stigma stop you or your loved one from getting the care they need. Call us at 877-RECOVERY. Our specialists are available day and night, seven days a week, to help you start your journey to recovery.

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