Many service members face challenges that extend beyond the battlefield. Addiction, which often remains hidden behind the strength and discipline of service men and women, is one such challenge. This addiction deserves the same attention and understanding afforded to any other group. Understanding the complexities of addiction among service members and its underlying causes can help veterans and their families get the support they need and deserve.
The Hidden Battle
Oftentimes, addiction within the military goes unnoticed. Sometimes, it is hidden intentionally. Why? Most people expect service men and women to demonstrate strength, resilience, and mental fortitude. Seeking help and being vulnerable can be perceived as a sign of weakness. Unfortunately, this incorrect perception causes many service members to avoid seeking treatment, which leads to a hidden battle that affects their quality of life.
Common Underlying Causes Of Addiction Among Service Members
The nature of military service exposes individuals to various risk factors. Prolonged deployments, exposure to traumatic events, combat-related stress, and separation from family and social support systems can all contribute to increased vulnerability to addiction. Some of the most specific underlying issues affecting veterans and service members include:
- Trauma and PTSD: Exposure to traumatic events and combat situations can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among service members. The emotional distress caused by these experiences can drive individuals to use substances to numb their pain or escape from distressing memories.
- Stress and Coping Mechanisms: Military service comes with high levels of stress, whether it’s because of demanding responsibilities, deployments, or the pressure to perform under challenging circumstances. Some service members turn to substances to cope with stress and alleviate anxiety.
- Physical Injuries and Pain Management: Many service members experience physical injuries. The need for pain management can lead to prescription opioid use, which, if not closely monitored, can escalate into addiction.
- Availability of Substances: Within the military environment, access to alcohol and prescription medications is often readily available. This easy accessibility can contribute to substance experimentation and eventual addiction.
- Isolation and Loneliness: Long deployments and frequent relocations can lead to isolation and disconnection from family, friends, and support systems. Substance use might provide a temporary sense of relief from loneliness.
- Peer Pressure: The close-knit nature of military units can create an environment where substance use is normalized or encouraged. Peer pressure to conform to the behaviors of the group can influence service members to engage in substance use.
- Transition to Civilian Life: When service members transition to civilian life, they often face a significant adjustment period. Losing the structured military environment and camaraderie can lead to feelings of purposelessness and depression, driving some individuals to turn to substances for solace.
- Lack of Mental Health Support: Stigma surrounding mental health issues within the military can discourage service members from seeking help for emotional struggles. The lack of adequate mental health support can contribute to self-medication through substance use.
- Lack of Awareness and Education: Some service members might not be fully aware of the risks associated with substance use or the signs of addiction. Lack of education about addiction and its consequences can contribute to its development.
- Identity and Purpose: Military service can become central to a person’s identity. When that identity is disrupted because of injury or transition, individuals might struggle to find a new sense of purpose, leading to feelings of emptiness that substance use may temporarily fill.
Addressing addiction among service members requires a holistic approach that takes these underlying causes into consideration.
Service Members, PTSD, & Addiction
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is another key contributor to addiction among service members. Witnessing or experiencing traumatic events can lead to intense emotional distress, and substance use might be a way to self-soothe or escape from haunting memories. Unfortunately, this coping mechanism often exacerbates the problem, trapping individuals in a cycle of addiction.
Support For Service Members
Addressing addiction within the military requires a multi-pronged approach that emphasizes support, awareness, and destigmatization. Creating an environment where service members feel safe to discuss their struggles without fearing repercussions is paramount. Comprehensive mental health services should be readily accessible, both during active duty and after transitioning to civilian life.
Peer support programs can play a significant role in breaking down the walls of silence. When service members see their colleagues openly discussing and seeking help for addiction, it can encourage others to do the same. Building a community of understanding and empathy can go a long way in reducing the shame associated with addiction.
Additionally, raising awareness about addiction among service members is vital. Educating the public, as well as military leadership, about the realities of this struggle can lead to more informed policies and resources. From incorporating addiction prevention programs into basic training to offering ongoing mental health check-ins, the military can take proactive steps to mitigate the risk of addiction.
Other forms of support can include:
- Counseling and therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Motivational Interviewing (MI)
- Rehabilitation programs
- Regular workshops about recognizing signs of addiction and available resources
- Veterans’ support groups
- Skill development programs
- Chaplain services which can provide emotional and moral support
- Regular screenings
- Peer counseling
- Structured aftercare
- Alternative therapies such as art therapy, mindfulness, and outdoor activities
TriCare: A Bridge Of Hope
The brave individuals who serve in the military deserve our unwavering support not only on the battlefield but also in their personal battles. Addiction among service members is a silent struggle that requires a compassionate and comprehensive response.
TRICARE is a government-sponsored healthcare program that connects military members and their families with important health services, including primary care, dental and vision, prescription drugs, and behavioral health support. At Bridges of Hope, we’re proud to be a TRICARE Certified Provider. This means that we can provide behavioral health services to active duty members, veterans, and their families in Indiana.
It’s time to shed light on this hidden battle, to give a voice to those who have been silenced by stigma, and to ensure that those who have sacrificed so much for their countries receive the care they need and deserve. Our TriCare Program does just that. Contact us today to learn more.