group of veterans talking in support group

Unfortunately, stigma holds many people back from seeking help or treatment for a mental illness, substance use disorder (SUD), alcohol use disorder (AUD), or physical pain. Getting treatment or support, whether psychological or physical, is often viewed as a weakness or a flaw in someoneespecially for veterans and active-duty service members (ADSMs).

Veterans and Substance Abuse

Service members have always held the responsibility and expectation of being the hero in times of crisis, even after they choose to retire. Holding the title of “hero” is a lot of pressure, especially when it’s expected of you in everyday situations. After retirement or discharge, veterans must return home and create a new normal for themselves. Service members’ identity often lies in their occupation and what they do for a living. Once an ADSM retires and no longer serves, it feels like a part of them is missing.

After all the traumatic events and challenges they experienced regularly, it’s tough to leave that behind and adapt to life as it is. While not all veterans experience the same situations, they can all relate to the misery following traumatic exposure. Retiring as a veteran is saying goodbye to a community that walked with you through some of the most challenging situations. When we’re looking for community and coping with loss, it’s common to look for ways to cope and things to do. It’s incredibly easy to find yourself socially drinking when meeting with friends; however, it can quickly become a problem. Many friendships are formed in social settings like bars, but so are addictions and toxic habits.

Approximately 11% of veterans in the VHA system have received a substance use disorder (SUD) diagnosis. Veterans often resort to substances to cope with and relieve their suffering. Using substances to cope with emotional or physical pain is one of the most common ways to develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

What Causes Addiction in Veterans?

Veterans often disregard the mental health struggles and traumas they experience due to the stigma around them. As a veteran, admitting you’re struggling and need help could be viewed as instability or weakness. Many retired service members never seek mental health treatments for this exact reason, causing their trauma to fester over time. Someone in an unhealthy state of mind who refuses to seek treatment for their pain will adopt toxic behaviors and habits to self-medicate—like drinking or using drugs.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans is more prevalent than in the average American. PTSD is one of the most common mental health disorders in veterans and active-duty service members (ADSMs). When PTSD and a drug or alcohol addiction coincide, this amplifies the psychological effects and emotional pain. A mental health disorder that exists with a substance use disorder (SUD) is referred to as a co-occurring disorder.

How Stigma Affects Veterans’ Mental Health

Veterans try their best to meet society’s expectations, whether on active duty or retirement. Following discharge, veterans experience the mental battle of finding a new “passion” and getting into a new rhythm. They don’t want it to be visible that they’re struggling, which causes them to disclose their emotions and feelings rather than openly discuss them.

We might believe that bottling up our feelings will cause them to disappear on their own eventually, but we’re wrong. Just because we’re not actively thinking about those negative emotions doesn’t mean they no longer take up space inside our minds. Whether we believe this tactic to be valid or not, we all do it repeatedly. Eventually, our emotions and trauma begin to fester and reach a breaking point. Unfortunately, many of us don’t choose to seek help until it gets to this peak and use unhealthy coping methods such as drug and alcohol abuse.

When we conceal our emotions rather than deal with them, this triggers thoughts that stimulate cortisol. High cortisol levels increase weight gain, headaches, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and irritability. As we stuff and suppress our emotions, our cortisol levels increase while our mental health declines. Our mind and body can only withstand a certain amount of emotional suppression until they eventually can’t hide it anymore. Veterans commonly experience sudden outbursts over minor incidents, high sensitivity to sounds, increased irritability, anger, depression, laziness, fatigue, etc. Every one of these symptoms can lead to alcohol or drug abuse, which would then intensify the psychological symptoms.

How to Support the Veterans in Your Life

Mental health should never go unnoticed or untreated. Mental health treatments, therapies, and rehab treatment for drug and alcohol addictions should not be shamed, especially because of gender or profession. When our mental health is left untreated, other issues, such as alcohol and drug abuse, follow. In order to help reduce the stigma of substance abuse in veterans, there are many ways to support them as a community.

Support Groups and Community Involvement

A good community and positive connections benefit everyone, whether going through a tough time or needing a friend. Showing your support and concern for the veterans in your life goes a long way. Veterans often feel that they can only relate to other veterans, which can produce feelings of loneliness. Support groups and online chat groups are great ways for veterans to connect with other veterans and share their experiences. There are numerous online resources for veterans, such as The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, SoundOff, and Safe Call Now.

Be Present for Your Loved Ones

Outside of support groups and chat groups, if you have a loved one who is a veteran, there are many things you can do to make them feel supported and heard. Providing our veterans with a safe space to open up and share their feelings and trauma is essential to reducing the shame they fear.

You can be reassuring and supportive without being overbearing or enabling them as long as you maintain healthy boundaries. Encourage them to take up hobbies they enjoy or try something new, invite them to do an activity with you, and be a consistent, supportive person.