According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.”

The repeated use of a drug(s) causes physical changes to targeted nerve cells in the brain called neurons. Neurons use release chemicals to send messages throughout the brain and the body. Addiction to substances and behaviors results in a disruption in communications.

It used to be thought that addiction was solely about pleasure seeking. But researchers now believe that people engage in addictive activities, such as substance use, to escape discomfort (physical and emotional). Addiction has also been defined as the inability to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior even though it may cause physical, psychological, or financial harm.

There is substance addiction and non-substance addiction. Some examples of non-substance addiction include:

  • Gambling
  • Food
  • Internet
  • Gaming
  • Cell phone
  • Sex

Primary indications of addiction are:

  • Declining grades or difficulty at school
  • Poor performance at work
  • Relationship difficulties, which often involve lashing out at people who identify the addiction
  • An inability to stop using a substance even though it may be causing health problems or personal problems, such as issues with employment or relationships
  • A noticeable lack of energy in daily activities
  • Profound changes in appearance, including weight loss and a noticeable abandonment of hygiene
  • Appearing defensive when asked about substance use

What are Mental Health Disorders?

According to the World Health Organization, “a mental disorder is characterized by a clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotional regulation, or behavior. It is usually associated with distress or impairment in important areas of functioning. There are many different types of mental disorders. Mental disorders may also be referred to as mental health conditions.”

There are many forms of mental health disorders; some are depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and more.

What is Comorbidity?

Comorbidity is the simultaneous presence of two or more medical conditions. When a person suffers from a mental health disorder combined with substance use disorder (SUD), which includes alcohol, it is referred to as a dual diagnosis or comorbidity. In treating addiction, the client may suffer from more than one mental health disorder. These conditions tend to be long-term or chronic.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.” Sometimes the signs of trauma occur quickly, and sometimes they do not appear for years until something triggers it.

Veterans, Addiction, and Comorbidity

The awareness of veterans suffering from addiction and trauma emerged following the Vietnam war. Since then, much research has been done on active military and veterans. Generally, research has found that veterans with SUDs usually suffer from co-occurring mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, and adjustment disorder, to name a few. Often these same veterans suffer from medical conditions such as obesity, sleep disturbance, physical injury, chronic pain, poor quality of life, complex relationships, and higher levels of aggression.

Researchers examining aggression in veterans and the active military found “recently, studies have found that combat exposure may be a proxy risk factor and that PTSD better accounted for veterans’ perpetration of aggression….” In combination with alcohol, the prevalence of aggression was greater. A 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health study compared veterans with non-veterans and found that veterans were likely 56.6% vs. 50.8% to report the use of alcohol in one month and heavy use of alcohol 7.5% vs. 6.5% in one month. Sixty-five percent of veterans who enter treatment report alcohol as the most misused drug, “double that of the general population.”

Alcohol, opioids, and marijuana are just a few drugs taken to relieve the stresses related to training, combat, and military disengagement. Chronic pain in injured veterans contributes to the abuse of substances as well. When mental health disorders such as anxiety, anger, and depression go untreated by a knowledgeable physician, the condition will worsen if the veteran or active military person self-medicates (takes alcohol or drugs to feel better).

Suicide Results from Untreated Mental Health Conditions

According to the Veterans Administration, the unadjusted suicide rate for veterans was 23.3 per 100,000 in 2001 and 31.7% per 100,000 in 2020. For non-veterans, it was 12.6% per 100,000 in 2001 and 16.1% per 100,000 in 2020. Suicide rates among veterans living in rural areas have risen since 2018 and 2020.

Women Veterans and Comorbidity

According to a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine (2022), “37% of female veterans misuse alcohol, and 16% suffer from SUD. Additionally, they have higher rates of military sexual trauma, unintended pregnancy, and abnormal cervical cancer screens than those without SUDs. The study addresses the need for gender-specific treatment, health care, and interdisciplinary team-based care. Statistically, women are the fastest-growing demographic of veterans.

In general, while the military has a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol, the levels of substance use exist. Additionally, those who suffer from mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD feel they are not free to seek help because of the stigma attached to being weak. Finding comprehensive care can be difficult for those who have left the service, including VA facilities far from home. These realities leave veterans isolated, resorting to self-medicating.

Treatment for Veterans

If you or a loved one is a veteran suffering from comorbidity of SUD and mental health disorders, treatment will help. Significantly, the facility has the expertise in treating multiple conditions and the unique problems facing veterans. A facility licensed and staffed by an interdisciplinary team can provide best practices in treating veterans. A variety of treatment approaches is necessary, which include pharmacological aids as well.

Call now to learn more about our program geared toward helping veterans regain their mental health and recover from SUD.