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Veterans and Substance Use Disorder

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According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2018:


  • 7 million veterans had a mental illness and/or substance use disorder (SUD)
  • About 1 in 4 veterans with SUD struggled with illicit drugs
  • About 1 in 4 veterans with a mental illness had a serious mental illness


These numbers don’t really come as any surprise – and are pre-covid, but it reminds us that our veterans are especially susceptible to mental illness and SUD arising just from the conditions of their service. Nearly 30% of veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are reported to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), a common comorbidity found with SUD. Between 10 and 20% of these veterans also suffer from depression.


Treating mental health and substance use or addiction issues through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one part of a comprehensive treatment program that can also include Medicine Assisted Treatment to greatly increase the likelihood of a positive outcome for people in recovery. For veterans, in particular, diagnosis of the cause of triggers such as PTDS, traumas, anxiety and depression is key to understanding the best treatment approach.


Many of the factors that lead to SUD and mental illness among the general population are the same with veterans. What amplifies these factors among veterans is that they’re vulnerability is heightened by their increased exposure to pain and trauma originating from dangerous combat conditions, including injuries from weapons or from carrying heavy equipment.


The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports that, among veterans:


  • More than 20% experience back pain.
  • About 16% experience joint pain.
  • More than 25% experience migraine pain.
  • About 27% experience neck pain.
  • Approximately 34% experience both back pain and sciatica.
  • About 37% experience jaw pain.


Older veterans are more likely to suffer from pain, but younger veterans are more likely to develop SUD with opioids. In 2018, 1 in 10 veterans using a prescription pain medication suffered from opioid use disorder (OUD). A majority of those instances involve hydrocodone, oxycodone and codeine. Recent numbers are reporting higher.


The SAMHSA report also shows that, among veterans suffering from SUD:

  • 6% had thoughts of suicide
  • 8% made a suicide plan
  • 3% attempted suicide

If you think you or a loved one are suffering from substance use or OUD, seek treatment by contacting a medical professional.



AnnMarie Fauske
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