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Returning Vets Struggling with Substance Abuse, Addictions, or Mental Health Issues

Returning Vets Struggling with Substance Abuse, Addictions, or Mental Health Issues
October 14, 2015 Dr. Karl Benzio

We often think substance abuse is a chemical problem, and believe me, all addictions, especially to substances, produce chemical mayhem in our brains. But addiction is really about feeling isolated and disconnected. The addiction soothes that pain, and is the addict’s partner in a really unhealthy relationship.

Unfortunately, veterans — because of the military lifestyle, experiences, and abrupt transition back into civilian life — are extremely vulnerable to feeling isolated and disconnected after their discharge. Feeling they don’t belong anywhere or don’t fit in after their discharge is the major enemy they now fight against. Addiction is often the weapon they use to fight it, not realizing it will kill them instead.

Here are 8 heart-breaking, life-threatening ways this isolation occurs and plays out for many veterans.

  1. Some veterans have pre-existing substance abuse issues and join the military to straighten themselves out. While military structure and purpose does straighten some out, unfortunately, others continue to use in the military and it actually gets worse with stress and the fact that binge drinking is socially acceptable to blow off steam when off duty or on weekends. When the soldiers get home they don’t have that commanding officer and rigid structure providing a level of accountability. The substance use becomes destructive and starts to control the veteran.
  1. Some veterans have witnessed or been involved in very traumatic and violent situations that haunt them. PTSD and Major Depression are the major diagnoses leading to so much psychological distress. A veteran is often independent, hard-working, and looking to serve and take care of others, not themselves. Seeing PTSD and depression as a weakness, they are embarrassed or ashamed, so they hide these struggles. But they can’t hide it long and the veteran starts the dangerous decline of self-medication with substances to decrease anxiety, control angry outbursts, escape depression, numb their feelings, shut down their swirling thoughts, or just get to sleep.
  1. Some veterans have a very hard time being away from their spouse, children, or parents. They feel isolated, disconnected, and alone. This leads to substance abuse behaviors while in the military and now they don’t know how to stop. They are too embarrassed to let their family know what happened to the tough, strong person that went into the military.
  1. Veterans have incredibly high rates of suicide. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program, 22 veterans kill themselves every day – about 8,000 a year. Nearly one in every five suicides nationally is a veteran — 18 to 20 percent annually — with veterans making up about 10 percent of the U.S. adult population. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but many people don’t realize that life-saving help for thoughts of suicide is available.
  1. Many veterans aren’t committing suicide, but instead are slowly killing themselves with drugs and alcohol they think will soothe the isolation, depression, or anxiety. In fact, 7.1% of U.S. veterans meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, according to SAMHSA. Drug and alcohol abuse further depresses, isolates, and brings more stressors and consequences to veterans.
  1. Some veterans develop great camaraderie with their fellow soldiers, have a clear purpose, feel valued, and feel their life has meaning while in the military. Then they get home and all those are gone and they feel lost, lack that deep camaraderie, feel unimportant, and lack purpose in life. The veteran’s days now are random and they may have trouble finding a job that suits their skills and passions and pays the bills. Self-medication allows a temporary escape from their current reality into a make-believe land where they think they have all those things back again.
  1. Being in the military, especially active duty and serving overseas, soldiers are subjected to extreme living conditions that are blended with serious life and death decisions and experiences. The veteran really gets to see what is valuable in life — truth, justice, liberty, true friendship, and appreciating our many blessings in the U.S. — and what is superficial/worthless — fashion, material possessions, entitled attitudes, gossip, media extravagance, and hypocrisy. When the veteran comes home and sees people belly-aching about fashion, whining about not getting a parking spot, bullying others, gossiping, taking advantage of a “weaker” person, or being arrogant about a trivial accomplishment, they snap and have a hard time living in a society and world with a extremely different value system, code of conduct, and relational trustworthiness. Substance abuse affords escape, anesthetizes the pain, and numbs the mind.
  1. Being in the military is usually a life with lots of boring routine and regimented activities, interrupted by high adrenaline, potentially high-risk adventures. These adrenaline rushes can become addicting, but coming back home, these activities often are expensive or are hard to find. Some veterans resort to high adrenaline hobbies, but others find the dopamine rush in our brain from substances is a reasonable replacement.

The solution to addiction is feeling a sense of belonging. When someone feels accepted by himself, accepted by some special loved ones, and accepted and belonging to God, it is amazing how fast the pain ends, the addiction stops, and real relationships and a sense of belonging and acceptance open the heart, renew the mind, and transform their life.

There is hope for anyone struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, PTSD, or thoughts of suicide. If you are a veteran struggling with these issues, don’t wait to get help. Contact Lighthouse Network at 844-LifeChange (543-3242) to find out how we can help you find a sense of belonging, a hope for the future, and a transformed life through Christian drug rehab.

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