Additional Challenges Faced by Addicted Veterans

A new study of military veterans has found that such individuals are often unwilling to openly discuss drug and alcohol addiction, a critical obstacle to receiving help.

Veteran is getting help

New research finds that veterans face unique challenges in overcoming their addiction problems. Certain factors exacerbate their addictions, like:

  • Not believing mental or behavioral health issues are as significant as physical health issues.

  • Being used to a culture of “Do it yourself” which leads to an unwillingness to discuss behavioral, mental, and emotional ailments.

  • Concern over experiencing discrimination from peers if they do seek help.

In addition to the challenges they face once addicted, veterans are simply more likely to experience addiction in the first place, due to challenges like physical pain from battle injuries, untreated PTSD, and daily struggles from trying to reintegrate into civilian life after years spent in service.

A higher likelihood of experiencing addiction coupled with unique challenges faced while addicted means that the families of addicted veterans must do everything they can to ensure their loved ones receive the help they need.

New Research Increases Our Understanding of Challenges Veterans Face

Researchers at the University of Missouri School of Medicine surveyed 334 veterans from 46 states, screening them for 15 medical conditions like PTSD, insomnia, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, anxiety, and depression. According to the findings, veterans were more willing to openly discuss and receive help for physical ailments than mental, behavioral, or emotional ones.1

Researchers asked veterans to rate the degree to which they felt seeking help for various ailments was important and urgent. According to the survey results, veterans were most willing to seek treatment for chronic pain, chronic medical conditions, and brain injuries. They were least willing to seek help for alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and sleep disorders.

Veteran is laying on a couch

Follow-up questions found that there was a direct correlation between the presence of discrimination or simply feeling discriminated against when discussing the prospect of seeking treatment for mental health problems for drug and alcohol addiction. To that point, veterans’ willingness to seek addiction treatment was lowest when veterans felt the most discriminated against by their peers for struggling with addiction.

The researchers concluded that there are two critical factors at play here:

  1. Veterans perceive physical ailments as more worthy of treatment than mental or behavioral harm.

  2. Veterans are less willing to seek treatment for mental or behavioral harm because they feel their peers will discriminate against them if they do.

These challenges should be addressed by:

  1. Informing veterans about the very real harms connected to drug and alcohol addiction.

  2. Seeking to reduce the negative stigma and peer castigation associated with veterans seeking help for addiction.

The Scope and Effect of Drug and Alcohol Addiction Among Veterans

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) compiled information on the scope and harm of substance abuse among veterans.

According to SAMHSA:2

  • In 2019, at least 3.9% of U.S. veterans struggled with mental illness and substance abuse disorders, a 6.5% increase over 2018.

  • One in four veterans struggle with illicit drug abuse, four in five veterans struggle with some alcohol abuse, and one in thirteen veterans struggle with both drug abuse and alcohol abuse.

  • Across the spectrum of mind-altering and addictive drugs, the abuse of most drugs of choice has remained stable for veterans, except for opioids. Unfortunately, an increasing number of veterans are misusing opioids, primarily prescription pain relievers.

According to NIDA:3

  • While cannabis abuse accounts for the majority of illicit drug use among veterans, reports suggest at least 10% of veteran admissions to substance abuse treatment centers were for heroin addiction, followed by 6% for cocaine.

  • Two-thirds of veterans report experiencing some physical pain, and 9% report severe chronic physical pain. From 2001 to 2009, veterans receiving opioid prescriptions increased from 17% to 24%. Then, from 2010 to 2016, opioid overdoses among veterans soared, from 14% of all substance-related deaths in this demographic in 2010 to 21% in 2016.

  • At least 65% of veterans who do seek help at treatment centers report alcohol as their primary drug of choice. That compares to about 35-40% of non-veterans reporting alcohol as their drug of choice when they seek treatment.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs has also published alarming data similar in scope to research put out by NIDA and SAMHSA:4

  • At least one in five U.S. veterans is addicted to drugs and alcohol.

  • At least one in three veterans who struggles with an addiction to drugs and alcohol also has PTSD.

  • The VA has determined that veterans will often turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with PTSD, an important aspect for rehab centers to understand when treating veterans for drug and alcohol addiction.

Real Stories: How Residential Addiction Treatment Transforms Lives for United States Veterans

Narconon Gaduate, veteran

Thankfully, there is a way out for veterans hooked on drugs and alcohol. One Narconon graduate, a U.S. Army veteran, had this to say about how residential addiction treatment helped him open up to treatment, receive help, and profoundly improve his life as a result: “I am a United States Army Veteran who thought he could handle it all on his own. I always had it in the back of my mind I was abusing and quite frankly, I lived in a state of private embarrassment. I have always known the real me without the addiction is the best, not just for myself, but for those in my life. After completing the Narconon program, I know I will live the remainder of my life without the guilt of the past, the addiction, and with the potential of the future my way. The me I am proud of every day and have always known to be the best. No matter your addiction, your issues, your background, the staff at Narconon is here to help as a family. All you must do is ask yourself who you want to be for the rest of your life. I hope you will be all you can be. I did and for me, it feels really good just like I suspected it would.”

“All you must do is ask yourself who you want to be for the rest of your life. I hope you will be all you can be. I did and for me, it feels really good just like I suspected it would.”

This graduate’s success story is a profound insight into veterans’ challenges and the culture of “Do it on your own.” But his ability to open up, seek help, greatly improve his life and overcome his addiction is a reminder that help is available, accessible, and warranted.

If you know a veteran addicted to drugs and alcohol, who doesn’t want to talk about it or thinks they can handle it on their own, please contact a residential drug rehab center today. Please don’t wait until it is too late for them to get help.


  1. APA. “Impact of discrimination and coping on Veterans’ willingness to seek treatment for physical and mental health problems.” America Psychological Association, 2022. ↩︎

  2. SAMHSA. “2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Veteran Adults.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2019. ↩︎

  3. NIDA. “Substance Use and Military Life DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2019. ↩︎

  4. VA. “PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans.” United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 2022. ↩︎