The United States is in the grip of an opioid epidemic that is showing no signs of slowing down. According to statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), more than 70,200 Americans died from drug overdoses. Of those overdoses, roughly two-thirds were due to opiate and opioid abuse. While the ongoing epidemic has spared no age group, our military veterans have been hit especially hard.
The connection between veterans and opiate abuse is clear. When returning home, our veterans face many obstacles. From new and existing injuries, deep-seated mental issues to loss, veterans feel constant anxiety and pain in trying to adjust to civilian life. In order to cope, many turn to opiates to gain relief. While it may feel beneficial in the short term, opiates have a high addiction potential—even if used under strict medical supervision.
If not kept in check, veterans often develop opiate abuse and addiction issues on top of their existing conditions. This creates major physical and psychological problems that adversely impact veterans, their families and potentially the community at large. With all of these facts in mind, it is very important to understand the underlying reasons why veterans develop opiate abuse problems and what can be done to get them the help they need.
The Strain of Adjustment
For those who serve in the military, the experience often takes a significant toll on their mental and physical well-being. When veterans return home, they can face extreme stress when readjusted to normal daily live. One of the biggest stresses that veterans face when they return home is dealing with chronic pain and injuries as a result of military duty.
During active duty, the use of prescription painkillers is commonplace on the battlefield and in military hospitals. Outside of active duty, veterans who continue to experience chronic pain may continue to use prescribed painkillers under close medical supervision. Pain management is a top priority for veterans, and the following are the most common ailments reported by veterans:
- Over 20% of veterans experience back pain.
- About 16% experience joint pain.
- Over 25% experience migraine pain.
- About 27% experience neck pain.
- Approximately 34% experience both back pain and sciatica.
- About 37% experience jaw pain.
These numbers increase as veterans age and for female soldiers. While many take prescription opiates as directed by medical personnel, they may feel it does not provide enough relief. As a result, they may obtain these drugs from fellow soldiers, family and friends. With opiates having a high addiction potential, veterans’ risks for opiate addiction dramatically increase.
The PTSD Factor
Along with physical pain, another major issue for returning veterans is mental health issues. Many veterans who return home often battle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Commonly known as shell shock, PTSD is a psychiatric phenomenon in which people have lingering and disturbing thoughts and feelings that are intense in nature.
The following are the major symptoms of PTSD:
- Intrusive thoughts—these can include repeated, involuntary memories; distressing dreams; or flashbacks of the traumatic event. The flashbacks veterans experience can be very vivid to the point they feel they are re-living those traumatic experiences over and over again.
- Avoidance—when experiencing PTSD, veterans try to avoid stimuli that can trigger memories of traumatic events. These may include avoiding people, places, activities, objects and situations that bring on distressing memories.
- Negative thoughts and feelings—these may include incorrect or distorted beliefs about oneself or others. These can also include feelings of ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame. As a result, they shy away from activities and support that can help them feel better.
- Irritability—those with PTSD are prone to angry outbursts; reckless behavior or have difficulty eating, concentrating or sleeping.
While there are many effective treatments that can help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD, many veterans fear seeking help due to perceived stigma attached to the condition. Many times, veterans will deny they are experiencing PTSD. If they are taking opiates or opioids to manage their physical pain, they may start taking these medications in order to cope with the emotional and psychological bagging associated with military duty.
In addition to an increased risk of opiate abuse, veterans may also start abusing other sedative drugs such as alcohol and tranquilizers. This creates a dual diagnosis situation where veterans have co-occurring mental health and addiction issues. When they make the decision to enter treatment, the road to recovery becomes more difficult.
When veterans are seeking help for opiate abuse, it is very important they find the treatment facilities and resources that can meet their unique and specific needs. Because of what they have experienced during active service, treatment programs must cater to the complex challenges they face. Because of the trauma and mental health issues associated with military duty, veterans struggling with opiate abuse must seek dual diagnosis-centered treatment.
The first important piece of integrated treatment is medical detoxification. Through the use of medications, nutritional therapy and other interventions, veterans can manage the discomfort and pain associated with withdrawal at a more tolerable level. Additionally, detox services feature comprehensive mental and medical evaluations to pinpoint the underlying issues that can impact recovery.
Once stable, veterans can easily transition into intensive inpatient treatment. With a combination of individual and group therapy, 12-step support and life and coping skills training, veterans can uncover the roots causes of their addiction with the support of treatment professionals and peers. Additionally, veterans can receive much-needed mental health treatment to address PTSD, anxiety or other mental health issues. By addressing the mental health and addiction issues, veterans have a better chance at a full recovery.
After formal treatment, it is highly recommended that veterans pursue some form of aftercare program. Whether it is intensive outpatient, sober living or other form of programming, aftercare focuses on the tools needed to prevent relapse from occurring and build confidence in recovery. Additionally, veterans can have access to resources in their community and through the VA to provide additional help in transitioning to a normal and healthy daily life.
Help Is Closer than You Think
Are you a veteran who is struggling with opiate abuse? Do you feel you have nowhere to turn? Do you feel that you have lost hope? There is no doubt that what you are experiencing is daunting, but help is closer than you think. Contact your local VA, non-profit addiction advocacy agency, hospital or doctor. They will be able to find the proper programs and resources that will help you break the vicious cycle of addiction.
While the stigma surrounding addiction can be overwhelming, asking for help to recover is a sign of strength. Believe it or not, there are countless numbers of veterans from all walks of life who received treatment and are living healthy and happy lives. Don’t wait another day; help is just a phone call away.