Opioid Addiction in the Military | Veterans & Drug Addiction

Explore the severity of opioid addiction in the U.S. military, affecting both active service members and veterans.

Ophelia team
Opioid addiction in the military
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In the United States, the opioid epidemic has claimed over half a million lives since 1999, and millions of individuals each year experience some form of opioid misuse. Opioid misuse and addiction isn’t relegated to any particular place in the country, and it transcends social boundaries, though some people are more likely to suffer than others. 

Among the list of vulnerable populations are current and former members of the U.S. military. This group experiences opioid addiction and fatal overdoses typically at higher rates than many other groups. For active service members and veterans, drug addiction is a deadly and often overlooked issue. This guide explores the severity of the problem and the challenges it causes for members of the military, both former and present. 

How serious is drug addiction in veterans and active service members?

Drug addiction is a major concern for all service members, but especially for veterans. Alcohol, for example, is a Psychotropic Central Nervous System depressant, meaning that it’s considered a drug due to its psychotropic effects. Alcohol consumption is extremely common in the military, and it’s become a major part of work culture for many service members. While sometimes encouraged, alcohol misuse is dangerous for both a person’s physical and psychological health, and it can lead to major problems, especially once a service member’s term is over and they go back to civilian life.

It’s estimated that over one million veterans currently struggle with substance use disorders. Of those, around 80% experience alcohol addiction and 25% use other drugs, including opioids. Opioids are particularly dangerous, especially considering that the number of fatal opioid overdoses in veterans increased by over 50% between 2010 and 2019. Without specialized drug addiction treatment for veterans and widespread awareness of the severity of the issue, this problem is only likely to get worse with time. 

What makes service members vulnerable to opioid addiction?

Numerous factors converge to make active and veteran service members a particularly vulnerable group when it comes to addiction. Combat experience, the physiological trauma of war, military culture, and injury while on active duty are all experiences that can put a person at higher risk for addiction, and when they’re all experienced in conjunction, that risk is even higher. These experiences all become risk factors for opioid misuse, and upon returning home from deployment, many service members experience things like poverty and unemployment, which further increase the risk of substance use disorders. 

It’s well-known that many people who serve in the military will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during or after their service, especially if they don’t have the right type of support upon their release. PTSD often goes undiagnosed and untreated for long periods, which can lead to an individual self-medicating for the condition, which commonly leads to regular and sustained substance misuse.

Finally, injury on duty is one of the leading contributors to opioid misuse among veterans. Service members who are injured in the line of duty often need to undergo major surgeries, after which they receive prescription painkillers in the form of opioids to help cope during treatment. Even when used for legitimate medical reasons, prescription opioids are still highly addictive, and an individual can find themselves dependent by the end of their treatment window. 

Veterans are also at a higher risk of developing chronic pain, which may be treated with prescription opioids upon returning to civilian life. Both of these types of treatment run the risk of encouraging opioid misuse, and without proper care that has been specialized to meet the needs of veterans returning from war, the outcomes are often dangerous.

How does drug addiction affect duty readiness?

Drug addiction isn’t just a problem once a service member has returned from active duty, but it’s also a liability during deployment and active duty, too. While the real number of active duty service members experiencing drug addiction is hard to estimate, alcoholism in the military is generally agreed to be fairly common, and opioid use, while less rampant, is still prevalent. 

However, it’s institutionally discouraged for service members to admit to these problems. Rather than receiving the specialized care that they need, these members may instead see punishment in the form of discharge from the service or limited career opportunities within the military. This leads to problems being kept hidden, where they can worsen.

Drug addiction can also make it more difficult for a service member to carry out their duties, and it can decrease their effectiveness. Using drugs or experiencing withdrawal while on duty puts people’s lives at risk, so it’s crucial to be able to address these problems head-on.

What are the challenges in seeking drug addiction treatment for veterans and active service members?

Drug addiction treatment for veterans has a fraught history in the United States. Treatment programs are frequently expensive, and veterans already have a hard enough time getting access to care for both physical and mental health services. This much is made clear by the ongoing mental health crisis among veterans returning from deployment. When it comes to treatment for drug addiction, things are just that much harder. Opioid addiction is highly stigmatized, and people often face judgment and distrust from family members, friends, and even employers when they try to seek help. The looming threats of social isolation, unemployment, and homelessness may discourage individuals from seeking the help they need.

There is some hope, though. In 2020, a major provider of state-sponsored health care for active service members and veterans, known as Tricare, expanded their offerings to better aid service members experiencing substance use disorders. These improved services include more comprehensive programs opioid use disorder treatment, lower costs overall, and fewer restrictions on treatment length.

How Ophelia can help

Ophelia aims to make personalized, evidence-based MAT as accessible as possible so veterans with OUD can get the care they need. Our clinicians, care coordination team, and enrollment team work together to help service members throughout each stage of enrollment and treatment. We provide support throughout each patient’s addiction treatment journey to help service members lead fulfilling lives.

Schedule a consultation call as a first step to get started.


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