For a majority of U.S. service members, alcohol is part of their military experience. The substance is pervasive, whether during training, while enrolled, or in civilian life as a veteran.
According to studies, not only are military personnel the professionals with the highest number of days spent drinking, but these numbers are steadily climbing every year.1 The main cause for this, as determined by the study, was due to co-occurring disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.1 Often, individuals who struggle with these conditions will take to alcohol as a coping mechanism. Some will develop an addiction to the substance.
But why are military personnel so susceptible to alcoholism borne of co-occurring disorders? This article will explore these reasons, while also exploring ways that military personnel and veterans can seek mental health and alcoholism treatment.
What Drives Service Members to Drink?
There are several reasons why military personnel and veterans may abuse alcohol. While deployed it can be easy to obtain alcoholic beverages. For those deployed in more remote regions, drinking alcohol may be one of few available activities. It’s also worth noting that the military is a profession. And like other professions, the military has a sort of workplace culture that encourages drinking.2
Perhaps the most significant factor for drinking amongst military personnel and veterans is as a coping mechanism. Military life can be extremely stressful. The pressure of being in combat zones may cause military personnel to seek out coping mechanisms. Many may turn to alcohol, and drinking can become a way to numb stress and emotional pain.3
Alcohol Abuse Among Military Veterans
What drives military veterans to alcohol abuse? The answer may not be straightforward and can vary greatly by individual experience.
Military life is, by its nature, stressful. While some may find comfort in routine and discipline, combat zones are seldom either of these things. The life-or-death situations and the lasting stress that accompanies them may leave military personnel anxious. In desperation, they may self-medicate with alcohol, abusing the substance in order to manage the stress of the situations.4
Another significant factor that may lead to military veterans abusing alcohol are injuries, both physical and mental, that may develop during or after service. There are several types of conditions that could fall into this category.
In the realm of physical injury, chronic pain may be most common.5 Military personnel and veterans who experience chronic pain may seek out ways to numb it. By drinking to the point of intoxication, military personnel and veterans may feel some relief from their pain temporarily. However, this momentary relief may put veterans at risk for addiction.
Mental health disorders may drive veterans’ substance abuse.6 Due to the stressful nature of combat zones, veterans may find themselves at higher risk for conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.7 Veterans may try and ease the symptoms of mental health disorders, leading them to drink to excess in search of relief.
Finally, military personnel and veterans may face difficulty when readjusting to civilian life. The move from military to civilian life can be troubling. A sense of difficulty with connecting to civilians can leave veterans feeling alone, stressed, and triggered to drink.
It’s important to recognize that alcohol abuse and alcoholism are not the same. Simply put, alcohol abuse is when a person uses alcohol to excess. Binge drinking is one type of alcohol abuse. While one may abuse alcohol regularly, this doesn’t necessarily mean they struggle with alcoholism or alcohol addiction.8
An alcohol use disorder (AUD), or alcoholism in lay terms, is a medical condition that involves the compulsive abuse of alcohol despite clear negative consequences. People who struggle with alcoholism may find themselves unable to stop drinking despite wanting to do so. When they do stop drinking for extended periods of time, they may experience withdrawal symptoms, which can be life-threatening depending on the severity.9
Signs of Alcoholism in Veterans
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, individuals must meet any two of the below criteria within the same 12-month period:10
- Using alcohol in higher amounts or for longer than intended.
- Trying and failing to cut back on or quit drinking.
- Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, or recovering from the effect of alcohol.
- Cravings to drink.
- Being unable to fulfill family, educational, social, or professional obligations because of alcohol.
- Continuing alcohol use despite clear negative consequences.
- Giving up social or recreational activities to spend more time abusing alcohol.
- Using alcohol in physically dangerous situations (Ex: driving while under the influence).
- Developing a tolerance to alcohol.
- Suffering from withdrawal symptoms after you stop using alcohol.
Alcohol Rehab for Veterans
Alcohol rehab for veterans can vary depending on your treatment goals and needs. While medical addiction treatment remains the strongest option for treating mental health disorders and alcoholism in veterans, there are many paths one could take to move towards a life in recovery.
One of the first steps would be simply to reach out for help. There a handful of veteran hotlines for those who are in a moment of crisis. These hotlines generally operate around the clock and can provide life-saving advice during moments of crisis.
Veteran Crisis Lines
Additionally, there are several support groups for veterans struggling with alcoholism and mental health disorders. These groups provide a safe place for veterans to share their stories with sympathetic peers. Either of these options is a great way to begin the process of seeking help and healing.
Treatment from the VA
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is another fantastic resource available to veterans struggling with alcohol addiction. The VA has helped countless veterans connect with alcohol rehab centers. Qualified veterans can likely get help with a VA facility; however, in some cases it may be more difficult for some veterans to connect to one of these programs.
If you live far away from any VA alcohol rehabs but need treatment, the organization can help you get started on finding treatment. If there is no VA alcohol treatment available, VA personnel could connect you with community care providers. Community care providers are healthcare facilities that work with the VA to provide treatment to veterans that may not be available at a VA medical facility.
Treatment from Private Facilities
Finally, there are several private treatment facilities that offer tailored alcohol rehab for veterans. These veterans’ programs are usually designed to treat alcohol, PTSD, and other co-occurring disorders. While Oxford Treatment Center does not have a dedicated veterans treatment program, we do offer comprehensive medical treatment for alcohol addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders.
Additionally, Oxford has two sister facilities—Desert Hope in Las Vegas, and Recovery First in Hollywood, Florida—that host the Salute to Recovery Program. Salute to Recovery is a program designed specifically to treat alcohol and other substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health disorders, like PTSD, in veterans. Many of the members of staff of the program are either veterans themselves, or relatives of veterans. This helps them connect with their patients and lead them towards a life in recovery.
Regardless of where you go for treatment, it’s important to remember that military personnel and veterans are not alone in their battle with addiction. While alcoholism and other mental health disorders can be devastating, they need not be permanent. Seeking help is the first important step to leading a life free of addiction.
- Delphi Behavioral Health Group. (n.d.). Drinking habits by industry.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol use and preventing alcohol-related problems among young adults in the military.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Substance use and military life: general risk of substance use disorders.
- 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.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2016). Pain: U.S. military and veterans.
- Sayers, S.L., Farrow, V.A., Ross, J., & Oslin, D.W. (2009). Family problems among recently returned military veterans referred for a mental health evaluation. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 70(2), 163-70.
- S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). How common is PTSD in veterans?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Binge drinking.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol use disorder.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.).American Psychiatric Publishing; 490-491.