How Loved Ones Can Help Veterans with Substance Abuse & PTSD
The U.S. has been at war for over 15 years now, and many of the service members who have come back from deployments involving conflict have had a difficult time reintegrating into civilian life. As a family member or loved one of a veteran, your life can also become turbulent during this time.
This isn’t a new trend—military veterans from the Vietnam War and the wars of our ancestors have come home traumatized from their experiences and were forced to acclimate to civilian life with little to no help.
But today, help exists. And although there is a still a strong stigma in the military to getting help, especially for mental health, we have better tools to treat these disorders—including PTSD and substance use disorders.
With the support of loved ones, veterans can overcome difficult obstacles such as PTSD and substance use disorders to live a life in recovery.
Veteran Suffering and Stigma
Veterans’ substance abuse is a common issue, especially when the veteran deals with a co-occurring mental health issue such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or anxiety. Statistics show that:
- Substance use disorders (SUDs) are one of the most frequently encountered health issues among veterans, and more than 1.1. million vets are treated for SUDs or mental health disorders annually.1
- Around 11% of veterans can be diagnosed with an SUD on their first visit to the VA.2
- 75% of veterans with SUDs were also diagnosed with PTSD.1
- Alcohol use disorder is the most common SUD.3
- Among veterans in treatment, 65% report having a problem with alcohol, a rate nearly double that of civilians.3
- 82-93% of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan were diagnosed with an SUD and another mental health disorder.2
There is still a stigma associated with SUDs, mental health disorders, and seeking treatment for these issues.4, 5 This is especially common in the military as well as among veterans.2, 4, 5 Around 90% of veterans with SUDs go untreated every year.2
They may be less likely to discuss having mental health concerns or less willing to enter treatment due to: 2, 4, 5
- Feeling pressured to manage issues independently.
- A desire to avoid revisiting reminders of past trauma.
- A focus on being stoic and in control.
- Believing that entering treatment is a sign of weakness.
- Fears of being forced to enter treatment.
How Veterans’ Families Can Help
After discharge or retirement from the military, it can be difficult for veterans to readjust to civilian life. Veterans may show signs of changes in their behavior or emotional states. If this occurs, it can be indicative of other issues, like SUDs and/or mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, or anxiety.
The VA recommends some supportive steps that family members and loved ones can take to help a veteran who may be struggling, including:6
- Learning more about what PTSD is and how it is expressed, how it affects veterans, and how to care for other family members who may be impacted by living with someone with PTSD.
- Offering support for routine health tasks, like attending appointments to the doctor or helping track medications or therapy.
- Letting the veteran know that you are available to listen if they’d like to talk but that you also understand if they don’t want to talk.
- Making plans to do family-oriented activities, like having dinner together or going to the movies.
- Participating in physical activities together, such as going for a walk, a bike ride, or swimming.
- Helping the veteran reestablish supportive, healthy relationships with family and close friends, particularly those who do not abuse substances.
Finding Addiction Treatment for Veterans
VA rehab centers are able to provide addiction treatment to veterans.7 VA treatment offers a variety of evidence-based, effective treatments for addiction, including: 7
- Individual and group counseling sessions.
- Medication-assisted treatment (MAT).
- Both inpatient and outpatient care.
Sometimes, a veteran cannot access care at a local VA. This can be due to a number of reasons, including lack of a full-service VA in the state, no VA within a reasonable distance, long wait times for care, or if a local provider in the community is better equipped to treat a condition than the VA.8
In situations like these, veterans may be able to receive treatment through a community care provider while having it covered through the VA.8
American Addiction Centers offers a program called Salute to Recovery that was designed to meet the unique treatment needs of veterans.9 This program also treats co-occurring disorders, since mental health, chronic pain, and physical health issues can have strong impacts on substance use in veterans.9 Many of the staff members are veterans as well, allowing participants to feel comfortable discussing experiences they may be uneasy about sharing with those outside of the military community. 9
Regardless of whether veterans seek treatment from the VA or an independent rehab facility, they are likely to receive most or all of the following:7, 9
- Individual therapy sessions
- Group therapy sessions with peers
- Marriage and family counseling
- Self-help and peer support groups
- Therapy focused on managing trauma and/or mental health symptoms
- Anger management
- Relapse prevention
- Stress management
- Training in communication and conflict resolution skills
River Oaks is now in the approved network of community care providers, meaning that for eligible veterans, River Oaks can be utilized for community care when the VA is not a viable option.
Veteran Addiction’s Impact on the Family
The time a veteran spends in military service may lead to PTSD and/or SUDs. These mental health disorders can impact their loved ones as well.10, 11, 12, 13, 14
Families may be affected physically, emotionally, financially, or behaviorally. They may also experience a range of emotions including sympathy, anger, fear, depression, guilt, resentment, or hurt.11 The veteran may isolate from the rest of the family, and stress can cause unhealthy behaviors to appear or worsen in family members.11
Veterans with SUDs and PTSD are more likely to have relationship issues.10 Spouses of vets with co-occurring SUDs and PTSD may be at a greater risk of:10, 12
- Decreased satisfaction in the relationship.
- Family violence, either physical or verbal.
- Feeling stressed, unhappy, socially isolated, or dissatisfied with life.
- Issues concerning intimacy.
- Reduced communication.
Children of vets with these issues are also negatively impacted.13, 14 They are more likely to experience:13, 14 p
- Anxiety, fear, sadness, or worry about their parents.
- Behavioral problems.
- Difficulty focusing on schoolwork or other tasks.
- Mental health disorders.
- Physical or emotional abuse or neglect.
- Substance use disorders.
- Symptoms of PTSD.
Taking Care of Yourself is Important, Too
When a loved one is struggling with PTSD and substance use, it can be stressful on the people closest to them. Guilt, fear, anger, frustration, and resentment are common emotions.6
The VA recognizes the important role that family members play in the lives of veterans and offers suggestions to ensure that you are caring for your own physical and mental health properly.6, 10
These recommendations include:6, 10
- Continuing to enjoy your life. Spend time with friends, participate in hobbies, and do things that make you happy.
- Not being afraid to ask for help. This can come from family, friends, members of a religious or spiritual group, mutual support groups, or medical/mental health professionals.
- Experiencing your feelings and knowing that it’s healthy to do so.
- Focusing on the positives, even if it’s easier to see the things that stress you out.
- Following a balanced, healthy diet. This gives you more energy and will help nourish your body.
- Making sure that you’re taking care of your physical and mental health. If you feel as though you are getting physically ill, depressed, or anxious, visit your doctor.
- Participating in regular physical activity, even if it’s just for a little bit each day.
- Reminding yourself that you can’t make anyone else change. They have to be willing to change and do the work.
- Taking breaks to relax and unwind by yourself. Whether you take a few minutes to practice deep breathing, or take a long bath or walk, this is a great way to collect your thoughts.
While addiction and PTSD can have major impacts on the veteran and their loved ones, it is possible to heal. With the proper supports and treatment, veterans and their families can recover together and learn to live a fulfilling life.
- Lan, C.W., Fiellin, D.A., Barry, D.T., Bryant, K.J., Gordon, A.J., Edelman, E.J., … Marshall, B.D. (2016). The epidemiology of substance use disorders in US veterans: A systematic review and analysis of assessment methods. The American Journal of Addictions, 25(1), 7-24.
- Teeters, J.B., Lancaster, C.L., Brown, D.G., & Back, S.E. (2017). Substance use disorders in military veterans: Prevalence and treatment challenges. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 8, 69-77.
- S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). PTSD and substance abuse in veterans.
- Psychological Health Center of Excellence. (2019). Reducing military mental health stigma to improve treatment engagement: Guidance for clinicians.
- Acosta, J.D., Becker, A., Cerully, J.L., Fisher, M.P., Martin, L.T., Vardavas, R., … Schell, T.L. (2014). Mental health stigma in the military.
- S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Helping a family member who has PTSD.
- S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). Treatment programs for substance use problems.
- S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). Community care.
- American Addiction Centers. (2020). Salute to recovery.
- S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Partners of veterans with PTSD.
- S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Effects of PTSD on family.
- Goff, B.S., Crow, J.R., Reisbig, A.M., & Hamilton, S. (2007). The impact of individual trauma symptoms of deployed soldiers on relationship satisfaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 21(3), 344-353.
- S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). When a child’s parent has PTSD.
- Smith, V.C. & Wilson, C.R. (2016). Families affected by parental substance use. Pediatrics, 138(2), 1-15.