Understanding Mental Health and Addiction in Veterans

1 Jan, 2023
understanding mental health and addiction in veterans

understanding mental health and addiction in veterans

Veterans have lived unique lives. They have served their country, but with that service often comes stress and hardship. Veterans face unique challenges between being deployed and away from family and the pressures of watching brothers and sisters fall victim to war. With these challenges comes the increased risk of substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental health disorders.

Substance Abuse Among Veterans

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), More than one in ten veterans have been diagnosed with [SUD].” The prevalence of SUD in veteran populations is slightly higher than in the general population.

Illicit Drug Use

Veterans may use illicit drugs when struggling with SUD. According to the NIDA, 3.5% of veterans report using marijuana, and 1.7% report using other illicit drugs. One study on veteran admissions to addiction treatment centers found that 10.7% of veteran admissions were for heroin use, and over six percent of admissions were for cocaine use.

Prescription Drug Misuse

Due to the nature of active duty, many veterans struggle with pain management. As a result, they are prescribed opioids to manage pain. However, opioids are highly addictive and can lead to the development of SUD. According to the NIDA, more than two-thirds of veterans report experiencing pain. “More than 9% reported that they experience severe pain, compared to only 6.4% of non-veterans.” According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), roughly 10.1% of veterans misused prescription opioids.

Alcohol Use

The most prevalent addiction among veterans is alcohol addiction. According to the NIDA, 65% of veterans who seek treatment for SUD report alcohol as the substance, they misuse the most. The NIDA also reports that 56.6% of veterans report using alcohol in one month, and 7.5% report heavy use of alcohol.

Mental Health and Veterans

Veterans also commonly struggle with mental health issues. StatPearls Publishing states the following.

“The most publicized mental health challenges facing veterans service members are PTSD and depression. Some research has suggested that approximately 14% to 16% of U.S. service members deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq have PTSD or depression. Although these mental health concerns are highlighted, other issues like suicide, traumatic brain injury (TBI), substance abuse, and interpersonal violence can be equally harmful in this population.”

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

In the veteran population, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is widespread. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), the statistics of PTSD among veterans vary by service era.

  • Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIA) and Enduring Freedom (OEA): Roughly 11-20 out of every 100 veterans struggles with PTSD
  • Gulf War: 12 out of 100 veterans struggles with PTSD
  • Vietnam War: 30 out of 100 veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime

The reasons for PTSD also vary. For many people, experiencing combat can be severely traumatizing. Many veterans face life-threatening situations and witness death and loss at higher rates than the general population. Other factors can contribute to PTSD, including the following:

  • What a veteran does in the war
  • Politics surrounding the war
  • Where war is fought
  • The type of enemy faced

Military sexual trauma (MST) is also a common issue that leads to the development of PTSD in veterans. MST is “any sexual harassment or sexual assault that occurs while [someone is] in the military.” According to the VA, 55% of women reported MST, and 38% of men reported MST.


Due to various factors in military life that cause trauma, veterans are also at risk of developing depression. According to the VA, 11% of veterans reported elevated rates of depression. However, just like PTSD, rates of depression vary by the war a veteran served. For example, Vietnam veterans are twice as likely to struggle with depression than veterans who served in the Korean War or World War II.

Because of these high rates of depression, veterans have high rates of suicide. According to the VA, “The average number of veteran suicides per day rose from 16.4 in 2001 to 16.8 in 2020.” In 2020, over 15% of veterans died by suicide.

Mental Health and Addiction in Veterans

High rates of mental health struggles often lead to addiction in veterans and the general population. Many people turn to self-medication to cope with mental health struggles. However, by doing this, individuals create a vicious cycle of worsening mental health and addiction. According to the VA, more than two out of ten veterans diagnosed with PTSD also struggle with SUD. 

Treatment for Veterans

Despite high rates of SUD and mental health disorders in veteran populations, treatment and recovery are possible. Treatment facilities that understand veterans’ unique struggles can help individuals find healing from mental health symptoms and addiction.

Trauma-focused treatment is essential for veterans. By addressing trauma, many veterans can get to the root of their substance abuse and mental health and find relief from symptoms. Comprehensive treatment that addresses veterans’ individualized needs and treats SUD and mental health disorders can help veterans live the life they deserve.

Veterans face unique challenges. These include combat, military sexual trauma (MST), and more. Due to these factors, veterans are more likely to develop substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental health disorders. However, comprehensive treatment can help veterans find healing. At Sober Life, we offer evidence-based treatment options for addressing trauma. We offer multiple levels of treatment, including a partial hospitalization program (PHP), intensive outpatient program (IOP), and outpatient program (OP). Our facility treats mental health disorders and SUDs simultaneously to ensure effective treatment and recovery. For more information on our services and how we can help you or a veteran in your life, call Sober Life today at (619) 542-9542.

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