In the past, soldiers were expected to bury their feelings and stifle their emotions, all in the name of privacy, secrecy, and strength. Now, experts know that addictions weaken the military and that people who struggle with addictions need more than a firm talking-to if they can be expected to achieve a full recovery. In fact, a military-understanding addiction rehab program might be the best way to handle the issue, whether the person is in active duty or retired from the military. Here, a person in need can tap into understanding professionals who can help, and the wounds of active service may begin to heal.
Co-Occurring Conditions: Trauma and Addiction
Military professionals receive a great deal of training in how to handle weaponry, run machinery and deal with enemies and friends of the country. There are times, however, when the trauma a soldier experiences on the battlefield overwhelms the physiology and psychology of even the most dedicated soldier. Deaths of colleagues can leave deep scars, for example, and living in fear of IEDs (explosives) or being shot by insurgents can fill a person’s head with images that are hard to deal with and even harder to forget. After trauma (or multiple traumas) like these, people might develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and those nasty images may recur at unwanted times.
Not everyone who enrolls in the military develops PTSD, depression, or other anxiety disorders, but some conflicts seem to be closely tied to the mental illness. For example, a study from the Department of Veterans Affairs found that 30 percent of those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD.2 These wars often involve sneak attacks and unexpected casualties, and it’s possible that these are the sorts of issues that allow a mental illness to flourish.
PTSD and Addiction
Soldiers with PTSD may lean on drugs and alcohol to numb their pain and allow them to forget. Unfortunately, these substances can also:
- Disrupt sleep, or cause nightmares
- Increase the likelihood of experiencing flashbacks
- Increase impulsivity, tendency toward risky behavior, or violence
- Increase feelings of paranoia or anger
- Create a sense of isolation and disconnection
Military-informed drug rehab programs are aware of the connection between PTSD and addiction, and the therapies provided are designed to deal with the mental illness that lies beneath the use of addictive substances. In therapy, people might work through their memories in a non-threatening way, and they might learn how to deal with feelings of rising anxiety and stress without using drugs or alcohol to suppress and sedate their emotions. Medications might play a role for a time, but the therapy can prove vital to provide long-term healing.
Depression and Sadness After the Military
Participating in the military means being away from the love and support of family and friends for long periods, and it might also mean dealing with the deaths of colleagues. Serious losses like this, combined with a predisposition for depression, can lead to a major depressive episode, and according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 9.3 percent of veterans ages 21 to 39 experience an episode like this during the course of a year.3
A major depressive episode like this is more than a passing feeling of sadness and loss. In fact, an episode like this can be debilitating, zapping the joy out of life and making each moment feel like it’s an endless pit of despair. Drug addictions can also blossom in these environments, as people might be desperate for any solution that could provide a little boost of happiness and joy. Depression like this, along with substance abuse, can also lead to suicide. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, substance use was involved in 30 percent of the Army’s suicide deaths from 2003 to 2009, showing just how serious this problem really is.1
“I got out of the military in August 2005, and with the discharge went my restraints. I opened my own business as a general contractor. I was making a comfortable living, and despite buying another house I felt like I still didn’t have enough… In 2008, I looked around at my life. I lived in a half-a-million-dollar house, had three cars that were paid for, had all tools a man could ask for, and made a six-figure income. I had everything that I thought I needed to drink like a normal gentleman, yet I still wanted to drink and needed to drink to feel normal.” —John G., Heroes in Recovery
Dealing with Depression
In a military-aware drug rehab program, clinicians partner with the clients to identify the source of the depression and help the person process the issue and move forward in a healthier manner. Some soldiers have feelings of loss they need to examine, for example, while others may have issues regarding anxiety, shame, or intrusive memories. Exploring these ideas in therapy could be key to healing.
Medications might play a role in treatment, as antidepressants can amend the chemical imbalances that lie beneath depression and allow people to sleep well, concentrate on the positive things in life and participate in therapy. Medications can take time to work, however, and some people find that they need to try many different kinds of medications before they find the one that works just right for them. Additionally, it often takes more than just medication to fix a deep-seated problem like this. Counseling can help a great deal.
When Soldiers Avoid Help
Sadly, even though military-aware drug rehab programs can provide real help, few people who need assistance choose to follow through. Fewer than one-tenth of those who have alcohol problems after deployment are referred for treatment, and very few received treatment within 90 days of returning home.4
Some may avoid seeking help because they believe that admitting to a substance use or mental health problem means admitting weakness, and they feel that they should be able to handle their woes on their own, without the help of outsiders. Others may avoid care because they don’t feel as though they can find a therapist that will understand the issues and provide appropriate help.
Many military personnel who attempt to get help in the community leave treatment after only one visit. They struggle with issues such as:
- Terminology. Military language involving acronyms, abbreviations, and lingo isn’t always understandable to outsiders, and therapy can slow when people are forced to define their terms on a repeat basis.
- Cultural disconnect. The codes that military personnel hold dear can be difficult for outsiders to understand, and explaining can be hard for people to do when they have their own problems to deal with.
- Lack of exposure. The issues soldiers must discuss in therapy can be traumatic, and some counselors may be uncomfortable with the idea of listening to first-hand accounts of war.
- Lack of respect. In order for therapy to be effective, the client and the therapist must trust one another. Military people might not feel respect for those who don’t have firsthand knowledge of combat or action, and they may not feel comfortable expressing their ideas openly as a result.
Military drug rehab programs are designed to address these issues. Counselors are adept at parsing the language of the military, and they understand of the experiences that soldiers might need to address during their treatment sessions. Here, soldiers can get the help they’ll need to get better, and they won’t be faced with misunderstandings or difficulties involving culture.
Finding Addiction Treatment
Programs sponsored by the VA aren’t the only option for people who need to overcome an addiction. In fact, there are private programs that can also provide needed help for people in the military. The staff members of these programs might use the same sort of treatments and the same techniques used by governmental employees, but the programs might provide other amenities that VA programs might not offer. They might provide more spacious accommodations, for example, or they might use alternative medicine techniques such as acupuncture or meditation, where VA programs might not provide these options. Some private programs even take payments from VA insurance, although this can vary.
Private military drug rehab programs might also be beneficial for people who are leery of getting help from an industry that’s closely linked to their original problem. They may worry that VA-based help will show up on their military record, or they may worry that they’ll run into colleagues while on the campus, and rumors may spread. While VA programs work hard to reduce stigma, and not everyone who uses these programs has problems with privacy, using a private program might give people the distance and reassurances they need in order to stay in care.
Michael’s House provides drug treatment for military members. Our counselors are understanding of military terminology and needs, and we provide treatments that can address both substance abuse and mental illness at the same time. Please call us at 760-548-4032 to set up an intake appointment.
1 NIDA. “Substance Abuse in the Military.” 1 March 2013.Accessed 10 Aug 2017.
2 Fantz, A. Sniper killing aftermath: Five things to know about PTSD. CNN. 6 Feb 2013. Accessed 10 Aug 2017.
3 SAMHSA. Major Depressive Episode and Treatment for Depression among Veterans Aged 21 to 39. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health Report. 6 Nov 2008.Accessed 10 Aug 2017.
4 Alvarez, L. Home from the war, many veterans battle substance abuse. The New York Times. 8 July