Veterans and military families make great sacrifices for the nation, but they also endure tremendous stress. Sometimes this manifests as serious mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or substance use disorder (SUD). In order to thrive after returning from deployment, both veterans and military families need robust support from their communities and expert mental health care providers like Family-Centered Services.

PTSD and Addiction in Veterans and Military Families

Many veterans experience acutely dangerous and extremely stressful experiences over the course of their service. If they are in combat, they may witness frightening acts of violence. Furthermore, they may be victims of violence and experience severe injuries. During this time, they may fear for their lives and the lives of those around them, causing them to be vigilant constantly. They may also be close to individuals who were injured or killed. Moreover, even if they are not directly engaged in combat, they might constantly be close to violent and dangerous situations.

The Prevalence and Development of PTSD

The violence and brutality that veterans bear witness to and the stressful and dangerous situations that they work in cannot be overstated. Military environments take a toll, and a common consequence of this is the development of PTSD. PTSD is a condition that occurs after someone experiences an intense and traumatic event. As military personnel are frequently in life-threatening situations, they experience unique risks of PTSD. 

While not everyone who experiences trauma will go on to develop PTSD, it is a reality for many people. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, PTSD is more common among veterans than among the general population. In fact, while the lifetime prevalence of PTSD among civilians stands at 6%, this number rises to 7% when only veterans are considered. 

Furthermore, the prevalence of PTSD also depends on which war(s) a veteran served in. For example, the highest prevalence of PTSD in veterans occurred among those who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. Of veterans surveyed, 29% had PTSD. Further, when living veterans of the Vietnam War were surveyed, 10% met the criteria for PTSD. Additionally, those veterans who have been deployed face an increased risk of acquiring PTSD than those who had not been deployed during their service.

The Link Between PTSD and Addiction

PTSD has many disruptive symptoms that can make it hard for veterans to thrive in civilian life. It can lead to intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and dreams about traumatic events. People with PTSD may feel the need to avoid certain situations, places, and people to avoid these thoughts and feelings. Negative emotional, cognitive, and social changes are common with this condition. In addition, PTSD can also lead to difficulty sleeping or relaxing and promote self-destructive behaviors. 

Another consequence of PTSD is substance abuse. When a person experiences negative thoughts and emotions, it can be tempting to dull that pain by turning to alcohol and other drugs. This quick fix offers the temporary illusion of a solution without addressing the root problem. For veterans coping with the distressing symptoms of PTSD, alcohol and drugs may be used to self-medicate. In the pursuit of shutting out painful memories, coping with physical injuries, dealing with stress from the return to civilian life, and navigating insomnia, veterans with PTSD can develop SUD and addiction by relying on substances for this temporary relief. 

Unfortunately, PTSD and substance abuse are not uncommon as individual conditions among the veteran population, and they also frequently occur together. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, over 20% of veterans who develop PTSD will also develop an addiction. Meanwhile, about a third of veterans seeking services for substance abuse issues also present with PTSD. Lastly, approximately a tenth of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have an issue with substance use. 

The Effect of Stress on Veterans and Military Families

Veterans are not the only ones who are impacted by deployment; the families they must leave behind are affected as well. A study conducted by the University of Iowa addressed the prevalence of substance use among children in the sixth, eighth, and eleventh grades. When compared to their peers who belonged to nonmilitary families, children from families where a parent was either deployed or had recently returned home from deployment demonstrated increased substance use. This effect was even more notable for children who were not living with either parent while a parent was deployed.

Altered Family Dynamics

Veterans and military families are constantly surrounded by stress. For those who are serving in the military, the stressors are innumerable. At home, there is still an abundance of stress that can arise. For example, those remaining at home have to cope with missing their loved ones and worrying about their safety. In addition to living with this uncertainty, they might need to compensate for one member of the household being gone when it comes to maintaining finances, keeping up with housework, and raising children. With the family dynamics altered, there is a lot of room for stress. Furthermore, chronic stress is linked to addiction.

There are times when veterans and military families might feel alone. Fortunately, there is support available. PTSD and substance abuse can be managed with care from a licensed clinician. Pursuing treatment for both of these conditions together can be paramount for sustained overall recovery. Family-Centered Services is here to provide families with solutions, no matter how overwhelming and confusing it might feel right now.

Veterans and military families have a lot to cope with. Even when a veteran returns home from deployment, there are many opportunities for stress and pain to arise because of the lingering effects of trauma exposure. PTSD and substance use disorder are a reality for many veterans and their families. If you know a loved one who is struggling to return to civilian life and seems to have an unhealthy relationship with drugs or alcohol, they need the appropriate support. Family-Centered Services is dedicated to taking an individualized approach to each family and connecting them with the resources they need, walking with them every step of the way. Call us at (509) 991-5822 to learn about our services.