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Substance Abuse in Veterans & the PTSD Link

PTSD has unfortunately been a part of the veteran experience since the beginning of military conflict — but it’s only recently that we’ve known how to treat it. Records of military service in the Civil War show that it was not uncommon for veterans back in the 1870s to feel they were losing their minds post-service. Back then, doctors blamed the symptoms of apathy, irritability, and appetite loss on moral failing, and even recommended more active service as a way to ease the pain. It took until the 1980s for PTSD to enter into modern medical discussions. Three decades later, there are still so many questions about veterans with PTSD, and especially how substance abuse and addiction can come into the mix. Even more important than that, how can residential addiction treatment for veterans help.

What is PTSD?

PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is defined in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Volume 5), the book that doctors use to diagnose mental illness. 

Only a doctor can diagnose PTSD, but in order to receive a diagnosis you must have at least one of the following symptoms in each category: 

Category A: Having been exposed to actual or threatened death, actual or threatened injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence. Exposure may have happened in any of the following ways:

  • One of these happened to you
  • You witnessed this happening to someone else
  • You had a relative or close friend that was exposed to this
  • You were exposed to details of this trauma as part of your job (e.g., first responders, medics)

Category B: Having experienced that trauma, you continue to have the following symptoms related to that memory: 

  • Disturbing memories
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Agitation following triggers that remind you of the trauma
  • Physical symptoms following triggers that remind you of the trauma 

Category C: You try to avoid things that remind you of that trauma

Category D (2 required): You experienced the following after your trauma:

  • Difficulty remembering facts about the trauma
  • Negative self-esteem and world view
  • Blaming yourself or others for your pain
  • Depression
  • Lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Difficulty feeling happy again

Category E (2 required): You began to experience at least 2 of these emotional difficulties after your trauma, or if you had them before, they worsened:

  • Irritability or aggression
  • Risky or destructive behavior
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Easily startled
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping

Overall, your symptoms from each of these categories must have lasted for more than one month, and must have created serious distress or problems at work and in your relationships during this time. They also must not be a result of medication, substance abuse and other illnesses.

How is PTSD Linked to Addiction?

However, PTSD and substance abuse are deeply linked and often coexist — especially among veterans. One study found that more than 10% of veterans showing up at the VA for the first time could be diagnosed with a substance use disorder. And, of the vets returning from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom who did have a substance use disorder, 82% to 93% also received a mental health diagnosis like PTSD. Overall, the study noted, “veterans with an SUD diagnosis were three to four times more likely to receive a PTSD or depression diagnosis.” 

For many, a substance use disorder is the unintended side effect of trying to numb the pain of PTSD. However, substance use is like throwing gasoline on the fire of PTSD — and it often makes things much worse.

What is Dual-Diagnosis Treatment?

The only way to truly heal both PTSD and substance use at the same time is through comprehensive dual diagnosis treatment. Dual diagnosis treatment is so named because it approaches and treats two interconnected diagnoses at the same time: substance use disorder and a mental health diagnosis. Any dual diagnosis treatment course is complex and comprehensive, by necessity, and best approached with the 24/7 support that residential addiction treatment provides.

Upon arriving at residential addiction treatment, each client receives their own customized treatment plan based on their individual needs and goals. Treatment may include a variety of addiction treatment therapies, such as one-on-one counseling, group therapy, art therapy, animal therapy, and more.

Help for Veterans with Addiction

If you or a veteran you love is struggling with substance use and mental health challenges like PTSD, you are not alone and the VA is not your only option for receiving care. Call our team of experts or send a chat to learn more about how dual diagnosis addiction treatment could help you start a new path to peace and freedom.