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Opioid Misuse in Veterans: Causes, Detection, and Recovery

Written by Melissa Carmona

& Medically Reviewed by Jenni Jacobsen, LSW

Medically Reviewed

Up to Date

This article was reviewed by a medical professional to guarantee the delivery of accurate and up-to- date information. View our research policy.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, help is available. Speak with a Recovery Advocate by calling (360) 857-0007 now.

Veterans struggling with opioid misuse can explore a range of support and treatment options to overcome addiction.

Understanding Opioid Misuse Among Veterans

A growing concern is the prevalence of opioid misuse within the veteran community, as indicated by recent research:

  • In the year before a survey, 2.5% of veterans reported misusing opioids, which included heroin and prescription painkillers.
  • Of all veterans, 490,000 misuse prescription painkillers, 57,000 are heroin users, and 53,000 misuse both heroin and prescription painkillers.
  • The most commonly abused substance among veteran opioid misusers is oxycodone, with 9.4% choosing it.
  • Opioid use disorder (OUD), a clinical term for opioid addiction, affects 0.5% of veterans aged 18 and older.

Further studies reveal that veterans are twice as likely as the general population to die from accidental opioid overdoses.

Distinct Factors Contributing to Opioid Addiction & Overdose in Veterans

Veterans encounter unique risk factors that heighten their susceptibility to opioid addiction. Military service, coupled with the challenges of reintegration into civilian life and mental health conditions, amplifies the risk of opioid misuse.

PTSD & Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders

Opioid addiction and overdose in veterans often result from co-occurring mental health conditions like PTSD and depression. Opioid misuse may serve as a coping mechanism for managing emotional distress, which is prevalent among veterans. Notably, nearly one-third of veterans seeking treatment for a substance use disorder (SUD) also have PTSD. Opioids can temporarily alleviate symptoms of depression, making them attractive to veterans grappling with suicidal ideation and depression.

Chronic Pain & Opioid Dependency

Injuries sustained during military service may lead to chronic pain, potentially driving veterans to depend on prescribed pain medications and consequently, opioid misuse. Research suggests that combat-wounded veterans are more prone to opioid misuse compared to the civilian population, underscoring the connection between pain and opioid addiction.

Coping With Military Sexual Trauma

Military sexual trauma (MST), affecting both men and women, escalates the risk of opioid addiction as veterans may turn to substances to numb the emotional anguish stemming from MST. Studies demonstrate that veterans with a history of MST are 50% more likely to develop opioid addiction.

Battling Social Isolation

Veterans, often grappling with mental health challenges, chronic pain, and limited mobility, are susceptible to social isolation. This isolation can lead to chronic loneliness, elevating the risk of opioid misuse. Moreover, isolated veterans may lack immediate assistance during an overdose, intensifying the potential for fatal outcomes.

The Nexus Between Homelessness & Opioid Misuse

Veterans face a higher risk of homelessness compared to civilians, which can exacerbate opioid addiction. Homeless veterans are more likely to misuse substances, lack social support, and remain vulnerable to fatal overdoses due to reduced access to emergency assistance.

Barriers to Healthcare Access

Limited access to healthcare for veterans heightens the risk of opioid addiction and overdose. Veterans underutilize healthcare services, resulting in reduced medical oversight. The lack of regular contact with healthcare providers can lead to insufficient education and information about opioid medications, their side effects, and proper usage.

Identifying Signs of Opioid Addiction in Veterans

Recognizing signs of opioid addiction in veterans is crucial for timely intervention and support. Some common signs include:

  • Mood swings
  • Secretive behavior
  • Deviation from prescribed medication instructions (such as using larger doses, crushing, or snorting pills)
  • Neglecting relationships and hobbies due to opioid preoccupation
  • Inability to reduce opioid use
  • Developing tolerance, requiring larger quantities for the same effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using

Treatment & Support for Veterans With Opioid Use Disorder

A spectrum of treatment modalities and support systems is accessible to veterans seeking recovery from opioid use disorder. These typically involve a combination of approaches:

Therapy & Psychiatric Medication

Given the often coexisting conditions of OUD and mental health issues like PTSD and depression, therapy and psychiatric medications are frequently part of veterans’ treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), including cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and prolonged exposure (PE), has shown effectiveness for veterans with co-occurring PTSD and OUD.

Access to Naloxone Through the VA

Veterans at risk of opioid overdose can obtain naloxone, a life-saving medication that can reverse opioid overdoses. Veterans can obtain naloxone prescriptions from their VA providers.

Peer-Led Support Groups

Peer support is instrumental in veterans’ addiction treatment. Support groups provide a safe environment to discuss recovery challenges and connect with peers experiencing similar struggles.

Involving Friends & Family

Incorporating friends and family into the treatment plan offers veterans crucial social support, reducing the risks of social isolation. Family members can engage in family counseling to enhance their ability to support and communicate with their loved ones.

Comprehensive Drug Rehabilitation

Veterans with OUD often benefit from comprehensive drug rehabilitation programs, available in both inpatient and outpatient formats. OUD treatment commonly commences with medical detox due to the severity of opioid withdrawal symptoms. Rehab programs encompass individual therapy, group counseling, medication management, and support groups.

Support for Veterans Struggling With Opioid Addiction

The Recovery Village Ridgefield provides a full spectrum of services for veterans seeking addiction treatment. Our state-of-the-art inpatient facility offers scenic mountain views, and our staff is specially trained to assist veterans as a part of the VA Community Care Network.

Veteran Recovery Is Our Mission

Our facilities have helped thousands of veterans overcome a drug or alcohol addiction. At The Recovery Village Ridgefield, our treatment programs offer veterans:

  • Veteran Advocates who can navigate the VA on your behalf to enter treatment faster
  • Experienced clinicians trained in military culture and trauma-informed care
  • Dual diagnosis to treat addiction and mental health disorders together  

View Sources

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Veteran Adults“>2020 Nat[…]eteran Adults.” July 2022. Accessed November 10, 2023.

Bennett, Alex; Watford, J. Alexander; Elliott, Luther; Wolfson-Stofko, Brett; & Guarino, Honoria. “Military Veterans’ Overdose Risk Behavior: Demographic and Biopsychosocial Influences“>Military[…]al Influences.”Addictive Behaviors, December 2019. Accessed November 10, 2023.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans“>PTSD and[…]e in Veterans.” Accessed November 10, 2023.

Riblet, Natalie; Kenneally, Lauren; Shiner, Brian; Watts, Bradley. “Healthcare processes contributing to suicide risk in veterans during and after residential substance abuse treatment“>Healthca[…]use treatment.” Journal of Dual Diagnosis, 2019. Accessed November 10, 2023.

Dembek, Zygmunt; Chekol, Tesema. “The Opioid Epidemic: Challenge to Military Medicine and National Security“>The Opio[…]onal Security.” Military Medicine, 2020. Accessed November 10, 2023.

National Center for PTSD. “Effective Treatments for PTSD:“>Effectiv[…]nts for PTSD:

Consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as First Line Treatment“>Consider[…]ine Treatment.” January 2015. Accessed November 10, 2023.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Academic Detailing Services – Opioid Overdose Education & Naloxone Distribution (OEND)“>Academic[…]bution (OEND).” Accessed November 10, 2023.