Alcohol Abuse in Military Veterans: Prevalence, Causes, and Consequences
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Alcoholism among military veterans is a pervasive issue stemming from the immense stress and trauma they encounter during their service. Alcohol often becomes a coping mechanism for these veterans, offering temporary relief. However, this reliance on alcohol can lead to severe consequences. Some veterans who turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism may eventually develop an alcohol use disorder (AUD), the clinical term for alcohol addiction. Fortunately, with appropriate treatment, recovery and healthier coping mechanisms are possible.
Alcohol Misuse in Military Culture
Unfortunately, alcohol misuse is deeply ingrained in military culture, where it’s often considered a norm. Researchers have observed that alcohol consumption is an integral part of military life. Active-duty members frequently drink together, using it as a bonding tool for recreation and stress relief. In some cases, binge drinking becomes normalized, making it challenging for service members struggling with alcohol misuse to recognize that they have a problem.
Risk Factors for Alcohol Abuse Among Veterans
Military culture and social norms play a significant role in binge drinking among veterans, but they are not the sole contributors to alcohol misuse in this demographic. Consider the additional contributing factors below.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
The connection between PTSD and alcohol misuse in veterans is profound. Veterans with PTSD often turn to alcohol as a means of self-medication6 to numb the emotional pain they endure. Moreover, experiencing multiple traumatic events over a lifetime is associated with a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder in veterans, underlining the connection between trauma and alcohol misuse in this population. Additionally, research indicates that 55–68% of veterans with PTSD have an AUD, significantly higher than the rate among veterans without PTSD.
Depression is another mental health disorder that increases the risk of alcohol misuse among veterans. Studies have shown that veterans often resort to alcohol as a means of alleviating the symptoms of depression, particularly when dealing with PTSD. Over time, this reliance on alcohol for coping can lead to alcohol addiction.
Military Sexual Trauma (MST)
While much of the research on military sexual trauma (MST) has focused on female veterans, it’s essential to acknowledge that men can also be affected. One study examining the experiences of female veterans found that those who reported alcohol consumption were more likely to have a history of MST compared to non-drinkers. The study also revealed that women with a history of MST might turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism for depression or to escape from distressing emotions.
Effects of Alcohol Addiction in Veterans
While alcohol may offer temporary relief, it often comes with negative consequences. Beyond the deteriorating mental health of veterans, alcohol addiction can lead to several severe problems.
Alcohol addiction can push veterans into homelessness as they struggle to maintain employment and meet their financial obligations. Research among veterans suggests that alcohol misuse significantly increases the risk of experiencing homelessness for six or more months. Furthermore, behaviors like driving under the influence are closely linked to homelessness.
Self-Harm and Suicide
Veterans battling alcohol addiction face an elevated risk of self-harm and suicide. Research indicates that veterans with an AUD are slightly over four times more likely to attempt suicide at some point in their lives compared to those without alcohol addiction.
The continued abuse of alcohol despite relationship problems is a hallmark sign of an alcohol use disorder. Veterans who become addicted to alcohol often experience conflict in their personal relationships, including growing apart from friends and loved ones or engaging in arguments with spouses and children due to alcohol-related issues.
Alcoholism Statistics Among Military Veterans
Statistics on military veterans reveal that alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorders are widespread. In a nationally representative survey of over 3,000 veterans, it was found that 42.2% had experienced an AUD at some point, with 14.8% displaying symptoms of an AUD within the year leading up to the survey. The study also revealed that younger male veterans faced a higher risk of AUD compared to other groups. Another study indicated that Gulf War veterans were 33% more likely to have an AUD than non-deployed veterans, while Iraq/Afghanistan veterans had a 36% increased likelihood of AUDs.
Assistance for Military Veterans Struggling With Alcoholism
If you’re a military veteran seeking help for alcohol addiction, The Recovery Village Ridgefield is ready to assist you. We are a part of the VA Community Care Network and offer specialized group therapy sessions tailored to trauma. Reach out to one of our Recovery Advocates today to learn more about the available treatment options and embark on your path to recovery.
Frequently Asked Questions About Alcohol Addiction Among Military Personnel & Veterans
Does the VA consider alcoholism a disability?
Veterans who sustain injuries or illnesses due to their military service or who experience deteriorating health conditions while in the service may qualify for disability benefits through the VA. To determine eligibility, you must provide documentation of the disability and file a claim for disability compensation. Mental health conditions like PTSD, depression, and anxiety may make a veteran eligible to receive disability benefits. While veterans with an alcohol use disorder alongside PTSD resulting from their service may be eligible for benefits, it’s essential to note that veterans generally do not qualify for disability benefits based solely on alcohol use. For further information, contact the VA.
What are the most common causes of alcoholism for veterans?
Military culture and mental health conditions like PTSD and depression are commonly associated with alcohol misuse among veterans. The stressors of military service often lead to alcohol use as a coping mechanism, eventually culminating in addiction.
What are some signs and symptoms of alcohol misuse in veterans?
Signs of alcohol addiction in veterans include:
- Consuming large quantities of alcohol.
- Spending a significant amount of time either drinking or recovering from being drunk.
- Struggling to fulfill job duties effectively.
- Withdrawing from usual hobbies and activities.
- Experiencing intense alcohol cravings.
- An inability to cut back on alcohol use.
- Displaying withdrawal symptoms like tremors or headaches when not drinking.
How does alcoholism impact veterans?
Alcohol misuse has been linked to numerous problems among veterans, including homelessness, self-harm, and relationship difficulties. Additionally, alcohol misuse is associated with poor physical and mental health in veterans.
What barriers to treatment for alcohol addiction do veterans face?
While treatment is beneficial for veterans struggling with alcohol addiction, they may not always receive the assistance they need. Common barriers to treatment in this population include being emotionally unprepared for treatment, feeling that treatment is unnecessary, reluctance to seek help, fear of stigmatization or repercussions, and a lack of time to access care.
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McDevitt-Murphy, Meghan; Fields, Jordan; Monahan, Christopher; & Bracken, Katherine. “Drinking motives among heavy-drinking veterans with and without posttraumatic stress disorder.” Addiction Research & Theory, 2015. Accessed June 14, 2023.
Fuehrlein, Brian, et al. “The burden of alcohol use disorders in US military veterans: results from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study.” Addiction, October 2016. Accessed June 14, 2023.
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Harris, Taylor; Kintzle, Sara; Wenzel, Suzanne; & Castro, Andrew. “Expanding the Understanding of Risk Behavior Associated With Homelessness Among Veterans.” Military Medicine, September 2017. Accessed June 14, 2023.
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Stecker, Tracy; Shiner, Brian; Watts, Bradley; Jones, Meissa; & Conner, Kenneth. “Treatment-Seeking Barriers for Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Conflicts Who Screen Positive for PTSD.” Psychiatric Services, March 2013. Accessed June 14, 2023.