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Help For Veterans

Help For Veterans

Many brave people have given their lives in service of our country, and countless others have been deeply affected by the traumatic events and situations that they have experienced while employed in the Armed Forces.

Once our veterans are discharged from service and begin to reintegrate back into daily life, this trauma can manifest in the form of PTSD and eventually substance addiction as they seek to escape from the distressing memories and flashbacks that plague them each day.

Addiction is a very real problem in veterans, and it is crucial that these individuals receive the help and support that they deserve as they attempt to process their experiences and move forward with their lives.

What can cause addiction to develop in veterans?

Veterans are at a higher risk of developing an addiction when compared to the general population due to the often traumatic events and emotions that they experience throughout their service. [1]

Common factors that can cause addiction to develop in veterans include:

1. Drinking culture

While the Armed Forces have strict rules regarding drug use, excessive alcohol consumption is often encouraged and celebrated.

New recruits in particular are often subjected to peer pressure in order to convince them to drink large amounts of alcohol, but this behaviour can be seen in all ranks and squadrons. Normalising these levels of drinking can make it difficult to adjust to daily life once an individual leaves the Armed Forces, and the risk of becoming physically and psychologically addicted to alcohol Is increased.

2. Loneliness and isolation

Being far from family and friends and working in often highly stressful and dangerous conditions can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, two key factors involved in developing an addiction.

Many people turn to alcohol when deployed in foreign countries in order to ease these feelings, and may begin using prescription drugs in an effort to improve their mood and escape from their current reality.

3. PTSD

Most veterans have experienced situations that many of us could not begin to fathom. These experiences can lead to psychological trauma, which if left untreated may develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It is common for people dealing with PTSD to turn to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate the depression and anxiety that they experience and to avoid painful memories and flashbacks. As a result, addiction is far more common in individuals with PTSD. [2]

4. Brain injuries

Traumatic brain injury can be caused by a severe blow to the head or hard shaking and can result in nerve damage to the brain as it collides with the skull.

This injury is fairly common in veterans, with one study reporting that up to 30% of veterans deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq may have experienced a traumatic brain injury. However, many of these individuals will not have been professionally diagnosed. [3]

Due to the resulting nerve damage, individuals affected by a traumatic brain injury may struggle to experience natural feelings of pleasure. This may lead them to attempt to gain this pleasure via substances such as drugs or alcohol. As a result, substance abuse rates in veterans with this injury are significantly higher than in the general population.

What are the signs and symptoms of addiction in veterans?

Addiction can be an isolating and secretive disorder, with many people carefully hiding the signs from their friends and family or even being unaware that they have a problem.

However, an addiction will often manifest in a number of physical, psychological and behavioural symptoms that may be apparent if you are aware of what to look out for.

If you know someone who once served in the Armed Forces or are a veteran yourself, it’s important to stay alert to the potential warning signs of addiction. Taking early action can increase the chances of long-term recovery and ensure the individual receives the help and support that they require.

Common signs and symptoms of addiction in veterans include:

  • Poor personal hygiene and lack of grooming
  • Regularly appearing intoxicated or under the influence
  • Appearing defensive when challenged about the behaviour
  • Difficulty falling and staying asleep
  • Becoming withdrawn and isolated
  • Displaying deceitful and dishonest behaviour
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed
  • Engaging in self-destructive behaviours
  • Experiencing negative consequences relating to the behaviour but continuing to do it
  • Attempting to change the behaviour but being unable to do so
  • Low self-esteem and self-worth
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Increased depression and anxiety
  • Feelings of paranoia
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to change behaviour

As veterans are more likely than the general population to struggle with substance addiction, they often require additional support in order to successfully reintegrate back into daily life. It is recommended that professional counselling is sought after leaving the Armed Forces, giving the individual a chance to process their experience and develop healthy coping strategies in order to avoid falling into the trap of addiction.

What are the signs and symptoms of PTSD in veterans?

Due to the traumatic events that many veterans experience while serving the country, many are left unable to process their experiences and struggling to move forward with their lives. They are plagued with intrusive thoughts and flashbacks and suffer extreme anxiety, all symptoms of PTSD.

In the US over 500,000 veterans deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD, and it is thought that as many as two-thirds of these individuals are not receiving evidence-based care. [3]

Common signs and symptoms of PTSD in veterans include:

  • Vivid and realistic flashbacks
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Being easily startled
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Irritability and aggressiveness
  • Avoiding people, places and things that serve as reminders of the event
  • Regularly becoming tearful and upset
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Constantly alert and in a state of hypervigilance
  • Emotional numbness
  • Memory loss, being unable to remember the event
  • Feeling detached from yourself
  • Displaying self-destructive behaviours
  • Inability to trust other people
  • Feeling a sense of guilt, responsibility and shame
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Difficulty concentrating on tasks

As PTSD is a major factor in the development of an addiction, it is important to be aware of the warning signs both in yourself and others.

What should I do if I’m a veteran with an addiction?

Recognising that you are struggling with a substance or behavioural addiction should be applauded, as this acknowledgement can be extremely difficult and painful to come to terms with.

There are a number of options to consider when beginning your recovery journey along with concrete steps that you should take in order to begin receiving the help and support that you deserve.

1. Seek support from family and friends

Surrounding yourself with family and friends who are aware of your addiction and are prepared to support you throughout your recovery can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness while providing a much-needed listening ear.

Simply speaking about your experiences and emotions in a safe and non-judgemental environment can provide immense relief, and friends and family members have the ability to shoulder some of the burdens while motivating you towards recovery.

2. Speak to a GP

If you believe that you are struggling with an addiction, it can be helpful to speak to your GP. They will be able to advise you on a range of treatment options and potentially prescribe medication to reduce cravings and make your recovery journey easier and more comfortable.

It is not recommended to attempt to stop ingesting any substance cold turkey, as this can cause severe withdrawal symptoms and increase the chances of relapse. A GP will be able to provide you with a medically approved withdrawal plan or refer you to a specialised treatment centre.

3. Consider a rehabilitation centre

The most effective way to recover from an addiction is to seek professional treatment within a rehabilitation centre. Depending on the severity of the addiction these can be attended as an inpatient or an outpatient, where you can safely detox under medical supervision and receive a range of counselling options to suit your needs.

A rehabilitation centre can be particularly effective in treating co-occurring mental health disorders such as PTSD in veterans. If this is not treated along with the addiction, the chances of a relapse occurring are increased.

4. Attend local support groups

There are a number of support groups available across the UK that specialise in a range of addictions including groups that are specifically catered to veterans.

Listening to other people share their experiences can help you to feel less alone, and you may find comfort in speaking out about your emotions while receiving and extending support. These groups are confidential and while you are not obligated to speak if you don’t feel comfortable, becoming involved can help to decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation.

How can I help a veteran with their addiction?

If you know a veteran who is struggling with an addiction, you will naturally want to do anything you can in order to help them seek and receive help for their disorder.

There are a number of actions that you can take in order to encourage the individual to begin treatment while actively showing your support, including:

1. Communicating your concerns

Choose an appropriate time to speak to them and communicate your concerns. Keep the conversation calm and non-judgemental, simply stating the facts and encouraging them to seek help.

2. Providing support

Simply providing a listening ear can be a huge support to anyone struggling with addiction, as sharing their experiences and emotions helps to ease the burden and provides immense relief.

3. Researching treatment options

The idea of seeking help for an addiction can feel overwhelming to many people and may prevent them from beginning their recovery journey. Researching treatment options on their behalf can remove this barrier and make it easier and less intimidating for them to seek help.

References

[1] http://www.mdpi.com/2077-0383/5/11/95

[2] https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd-and-complex-ptsd/symptoms/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5047000/

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