Many vets with PTSD also struggle with substance abuse

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The mission statement of Project Bald Eagle: A 501(c)3 non-profit organization that is leading coalition efforts to stem the tide of the heroin epidemic through education, prevention, treatment, enforcement and data monitoring.)

As we celebrate Veterans Day this month, we must remember there are thousands of veterans across the country struggling with substance abuse, mental health disorders and trauma.

One in six veterans from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom suffers from a substance abuse issue, and research shows a link between substance abuse and combat-related mental illness. One in five veterans has symptoms of a mental disorder or cognitive impairment.

After returning home from serving our country, many veterans are plagued by chronic pain and traumatic brain injuries. These conditions often are treated by Veterans Affairs with a combination of prescription drugs. According to a report by The Center for Investigative Reporting, prescriptions for hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and morphine have increased 270 percent in the last 12 years among VA patients. The new drug regimens can be difficult to follow, and many prescription pain killers are highly addictive, especially when used long-term to treat chronic pain.

Since 2004, the number of veterans being treated for mental illness and Substance Use Disorders has increased 38 percent. The amount of narcotics being prescribed is even more shocking coupled with the fact that the opiate overdose rate of veterans is double the national average.

While many people are aware of the prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and traumatic brain injuries in veterans, most are unaware of how often substance abuse accompanies PTSD. It is estimated that 22 percent of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom combat wounds are brain injuries. Veterans with traumatic brain injuries often develop PTSD and are more than two times likely to be prescribed narcotics compared to veterans without mental health disorders.

It is estimated that more than 20 percent of veterans with PTSD also have substance-abuse disorders . In addition to prescription drug abuse, many veterans attempt to cope with their PTSD symptoms by drinking heavily or using drugs. Approximately 20 percent of service members reported binge drinking at least one time a week. This rate increases for people with combat exposure.

Traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and substance abuse are even more dangerous when combined.

Many veterans with PTSD report feeling numb, irritable and depressed. Substance abuse often intensifies these feelings. Veterans with PTSD and alcohol problems tend to be binge drinkers, which may be in response to bad memories of combat trauma.

Substance abuse also enables an individual to continue the cycle of avoidance found with PTSD. It has been shown that veterans cannot make as much progress in treatment if they continue to avoid their stressors. In 2009, military doctors wrote approximately 3.8 million prescriptions for painkillers.

Most tragic is that veterans suffering from PTSD and substance abuse are at a much greater risk of overdose and suicide.

What treatments are offered for co-occurring PTSD and SUD? Evidence shows that, in general, people have improved PTSD and SUD symptoms when they are provided treatment that addresses both conditions. This can involve any of the following (alone or together): Individual or group cognitive behavioral treatments; specific psychological treatments for PTSD, such as cognitive processing therapy or prolonged exposure; and behavioral-couples therapy with your spouse or significant other, along with medications that may help you manage the PTSD or SUD symptoms.

All veterans struggling with addiction can seek help by applying for the Veterans Alcohol and Drug Dependence Rehabilitation Program managed by the Veterans Health Administration. The program provides various therapies and treatment including detoxification, rehabilitation and psychiatric care. More information on this program can be found at www.benefits.gov or www.va.gov.

If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, contact West Branch Drug & Alcohol Abuse Commission in Williamsport at 570-323-8543 or learn more at www.wbdrugandalcohol.org.

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