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A drug counseling meets with her client a veteran to discuss substance use disorders in veterans.

Substance use disorders (SUDs) are a significant concern among veterans, with a higher prevalence compared to the general population.

The unique challenges faced by veterans, such as combat exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can contribute to the development of substance abuse as a coping mechanism.

Veterans need access to resources and support to address and overcome these challenges. In this guide, we will explore the various aspects of substance use disorders in veterans, including causes, warning signs, treatment options, and available resources.

Understanding Substance Use Disorders in Veterans

The Prevalence of Substance Use Disorders Among Veterans


According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, approximately 1 in 10 veterans has been diagnosed with a substance use disorder.

This statistic highlights the higher risk veterans face compared to the general population.

Male veterans aged 18-25 are particularly vulnerable to developing substance use disorders.

Alcohol abuse is the most common type of substance use disorder among veterans.

Studies have shown that approximately 10% of veterans who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and have been seen by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have a drug or alcohol problem.

Factors Contributing to Substance Use Disorders in Veterans


Several factors contribute to the increased risk of substance use disorders among veterans. These factors include:

  1. Chronic pain: Veterans often experience chronic pain as a result of service-related injuries. The use of opioids and other painkillers to manage pain can lead to addiction.
  2. Difficult life situations: Veterans may face challenges such as unemployment and homelessness, which may lead to substance abuse as a way to cope with these hardships.
  3. Mental health issues: Many veterans struggle with mental health conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Substance abuse may be used as a form of self-medication.
  4. Military culture: The military culture often emphasizes strength and resilience, discouraging veterans from seeking help or showing vulnerability. As a result, some veterans turn to substances as a means of coping.
  5. Past traumatic events: Veterans who have experienced or witnessed traumatic events during their service may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to numb their emotions or forget their experiences.
  6. Readjustment issues: Transitioning from military to civilian life can be challenging for veterans. Feelings of isolation, boredom, and loneliness may lead to substance abuse.

Recognizing the Warning Signs of Substance Use Disorder in Veterans

Identifying the warning signs of substance use disorders in veterans is crucial for early intervention and treatment. It can be challenging to recognize these signs, as veterans may try to hide their struggles or mask their symptoms.

Some common warning signs include:

  • Withdrawal from loved ones and social activities
  • Engaging in risky behaviors while under the influence of substances
  • Relationship problems with friends and family members
  • Changes in sleeping and eating habits
  • Inability to control substance use despite negative consequences
  • Increased tolerance and the need for higher quantities of substances
  • Participating in risky substance-related behaviors, such as binge drinking or combining multiple substances
  • Frequent discussions or preoccupation with drugs or alcohol

If you notice these warning signs in a veteran you know, it is essential to encourage them to seek help and support.

Treatment Options for Veterans

Veterans have access to various treatment options to address substance use disorders. These options include both VA-specific programs and private treatment facilities.

VA Recovery Services

The VA offers various recovery services tailored to veterans’ unique needs. These services include counseling and therapy, medication-assisted treatment, and treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions.

Counseling and therapy options provided by the VA include individual therapy, group therapy, and family therapy. These sessions are designed to address the underlying causes of substance use disorders and provide veterans with coping mechanisms and strategies for recovery.

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is available for veterans struggling with opioid addiction. Medications such as methadone and buprenorphine can help manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings, allowing veterans to focus on their recovery.

Treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions is crucial for veterans with substance use disorders. The VA offers specialized programs that address both the addiction and the underlying mental health issues, such as PTSD or depression.

Private Substance Abuse Programs for Veterans

In addition to VA programs, private treatment facilities are specifically designed for veterans. These programs often provide a supportive and understanding environment for veterans to recover from substance use disorders. Examples of private veteran-specific recovery programs include Emmanuel House in Detroit, Michigan, and Heroes’ Mile in Deland, Florida.

It is important to note that veterans can also seek treatment at non-veteran-specific private treatment facilities. Many of these facilities have experience working with veterans and can provide specialized care.

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Types of Treatment for Veterans with Substance Use Disorder

Veterans have access to various types of treatment for substance use disorders. The most appropriate treatment option depends on the individual’s needs and circumstances.

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient or residential treatment involves residing at a treatment facility for a specified period. This type of treatment provides 24/7 supervision and support, allowing veterans to focus solely on their recovery.

Inpatient treatment programs can be short-term, typically lasting less than 30 days, or long-term, extending for several months or up to a year. The duration of the program will depend on the severity of the substance use disorder and the individual’s progress in treatment.

Outpatient Services

Outpatient treatment offers flexibility for veterans who cannot commit to a residential program. This type of treatment allows individuals to live at home while attending therapy sessions and receiving support.

Outpatient services may include individual therapy, group therapy, and medication management. Veterans can continue their daily routines while receiving the necessary treatment and support for their substance use disorders.

Dual Diagnosis Care

Many veterans with substance use disorders also have co-occurring mental health conditions. Dual diagnosis care addresses both the addiction and the underlying mental health issues.

Therapeutic interventions, medication management, and counseling are essential to dual diagnosis care. By addressing both aspects simultaneously, veterans can achieve better long-term outcomes and improve their overall mental health and well-being.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is an effective approach for veterans struggling with opioid addiction. Medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone can help manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms, allowing individuals to focus on their recovery.

Alongside medication, MAT often includes counseling and support services to address the psychological and emotional aspects of addiction. This comprehensive approach increases the likelihood of successful recovery.

Resources for Veterans Battling Substance Use Disorders


Numerous resources are available to support veterans battling substance use disorders. These resources can provide valuable information, guidance, and support throughout recovery.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

The VA offers comprehensive services for veterans struggling with substance use disorders. Veterans can access recovery services, counseling, therapy, and medication-assisted treatment through the VA. The VA also provides resources for family members and caregivers who may be affected by a loved one’s substance use disorder.

Veterans Crisis Line

The Veterans Crisis Line is a 24/7 support line for veterans in crisis and their loved ones. Individuals can call, text, or chat with trained responders who can provide immediate assistance and guidance.

Private Organizations and Support Groups

Various private organizations and support groups cater specifically to veterans with substance use disorders. These organizations offer peer support, counseling, and resources to help veterans navigate their recovery journey.

Examples of such organizations include the Wounded Warrior Project, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and the American Legion. These organizations can provide valuable support and camaraderie for veterans seeking recovery.

Substance Use Counselors

Substance use counselors are crucial in supporting veterans throughout their recovery journey. These professionals have specialized training in addiction counseling and can provide individualized treatment plans, therapy sessions, and support for veterans battling substance use disorders.

Substance use counselors work closely with veterans to develop coping mechanisms, address underlying issues, and provide ongoing guidance and support. They can be instrumental in helping veterans achieve and maintain long-term recovery.


Substance use disorders pose significant challenges for veterans, but with the right support and resources, recovery is possible. By recognizing the warning signs, seeking appropriate treatment options, and accessing the available resources, veterans can overcome substance use disorders and regain control of their lives. Substance use counselors, along with the VA and private organizations, play a vital role in supporting veterans on their path to recovery. Remember, there is hope, and help is available for veterans battling substance use disorders.

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