Alcohol Use Disorder in Veterans

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Last Updated - 05/15/2024

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Updated 05/15/2024

Key Takeaways

  • Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is prevalent among veterans, with over half of veterans aged 18 and older using alcohol in the last month, and a significant portion engaging in binge drinking.
  • Factors such as PTSD, depression, military culture, and military sexual trauma can contribute to the development of AUD in veterans.
  • AUD can lead to serious health effects in veterans, including chronic diseases, diminished mental health, and reduced quality of life. 
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders like PTSD and depression are common among veterans with AUD.
  • Veterans facing AUD have access to various treatment options through the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and veteran-specific rehab programs, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), medication-assisted treatment (MAT), individual and group therapy, inpatient rehab, and outpatient rehab.
  • Integrated treatment programs that address both mental health issues and substance use are crucial for veterans with AUD, as they provide comprehensive care and improve the chances of successful recovery.

Prevalence of Alcohol Use Disorder in Veterans

The prevalence of alcohol use disorder (AUD) among veterans is a critical public health concern, influenced by various demographic factors, service eras, and the accompanying mental health challenges such as PTSD and depression. 

  • According to the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 57% (11.3 million) of veterans aged 18 and older used alcohol in the last month.
  • Over a third of that population (4.6 million) participated in binge drinking.
  • 37.1% of veterans who binge drink and 14.9% of veterans who use alcohol also drink heavily. 
  • A study found that around 30% of completed suicides in military personnel occurred after alcohol and drug use.
  • Similar to the general population, AUD diagnoses are more common in male veterans (10.5%) than their female counterparts (4.8%).

Risk Factors for Alcohol Use Disorder in Veterans

Veterans may turn to drinking for many different reasons. 

  • PTSD: Research identifies post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a primary contributor to AUD in veterans. 7% of veterans will have PTSD in their lifetime. PTSD is associated with a higher risk of substance use as a coping mechanism for trauma.
  • Depression: In veterans, depression can both trigger and intensify alcohol misuse. This can create a cyclical relationship where each condition worsens the other. 
  • Military culture: The military often normalizes drinking as a social activity can also facilitate the development of AUD. The stresses of active-duty life and the transition back to civilian status often contribute to the misuse of alcohol as a form of self-medication or as a way to connect with peers. A study conducted from 2001–2010 showed that 10% of Iraq and Afghanistan received AUD diagnoses post-deployment, which may indicate the lasting impact of alcohol use in the military.
  • Military sexual trauma: Veterans and military personnel of all backgrounds have experience with military sexual trauma (MST) but is most frequently reported by women. MST can greatly impact mental well-being and lead to increased alcohol consumption as a coping strategy. 

To effectively help veterans dealing with AUD, it’s important to thoroughly consider these factors when creating prevention and treatment strategies.

Effects of Alcohol Use Disorder in Veterans

The health effects of AUD in veterans can be serious and may require professional intervention. 

Veterans with AUD are more likely to suffer from a range of chronic diseases, experience diminished mental health, and face a reduced quality of life. In particular, the co-occurrence of AUD with mental health disorders like PTSD and depression is alarmingly high. Studies indicate that veterans with a mental health diagnosis, especially PTSD, are more likely to receive higher doses of opioids. This can lead to many adverse outcomes, including emergency room admissions and violence-related injuries.

According to research, binge and heavy drinking patterns have been frequently observed in veterans who have been exposed to high levels of combat. This places this population at an increased risk for legal, interpersonal, and professional problems. Chronic alcohol misuse can also lead to major organ damage, including the liver, heart, and brain.

These patterns of alcohol misuse not only worsen health issues but can also lead to higher mortality rates due to alcohol-related incidents such as impaired driving.

Treatment Options for Veterans Facing Alcohol Use Disorder

Veterans struggling with AUD have access to many treatment options through the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and veteran-specific rehab programs, such as the FORTITUDE program at The Recovery Village Columbus. These treatments include a combination of therapy, medication, rehab, and peer support. 

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): This is an evidence-based approach that can help veterans identify and modify detrimental thought patterns and behaviors associated with addiction. Studies indicate that veterans undergoing CBT experience significant reductions in substance-related problems and cravings, particularly when addressing co-occurring disorders such as PTSD.
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT): FDA-approved drugs are prescribed to curb cravings and minimize relapse risks. These interventions can be long-term and are often combined with behavioral therapies for optimal results, a method known as medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
  • Individual and group therapy: Specialized counseling services are available to veterans, including individual and group therapy. 
  • Inpatient (residential) rehab: For veterans in need of more intensive treatment, inpatient residential programs can provide a safe environment where veterans can focus on recovery with professional support. 
  • Outpatient rehab: For outpatient services, veterans can engage in treatment programs while maintaining their daily responsibilities. Treatment modalities include sessions designed to manage urges, refuse substance use opportunities, and achieve personal recovery goals.

The Recovery Village Columbus’s veteran addiction treatment programs stress the importance of addressing both mental health issues and substance use together. By integrating treatment modalities, veterans are better equipped to navigate the journey to recovery and improve their quality of life.

Veteran Recovery Is Our Mission

Our Veteran Advocates can help you navigate your VA health insurance and get you the help you need. At The Recovery Village Columbus, our FORTITUDE specialty track for veterans and first responders offers:

  • Exclusive group therapy sessions with your peers
  • Experienced clinicians trained in military culture and veteran-specific care
  • Dual diagnosis to treat addiction and mental health disorders together  
  • EMDR: A revolutionary treatment that alleviates trauma symptoms

If you or a loved one are looking for veteran-specific help for opioid addictions, we can help. The Recovery Village Columbus offers comprehensive trauma-informed substance use treatment. As a proud partner of the VA Community Network, we provide a veteran-specific treatment track and work with VA benefits. We also offer EMDR, a revolutionary new therapy to treat post-traumatic stress. Contact a Recovery Advocate today. They’ll guide you through the admissions process and help you navigate your VA benefits or insurance.

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