Addressing the Unique Needs of Veterans in Recovery

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Substance use disorder (SUD) knows no boundaries. Individuals of every identity and population are affected by addiction in some way. One population that is uniquely vulnerable to substance abuse, addiction, and other mental health disorders is veterans.

It is vital to recognize that veterans remain increasingly vulnerable to these conditions long after they are discharged from active duty. To establish sobriety and mental well-being, veterans in recovery will likely need to address the circumstances they faced while on duty and while transitioning to civilian life.

You may be a veteran pursuing addiction treatment, wanting to learn more about how your unique life experiences have informed the development of SUD. Or perhaps you are a non-veteran wanting to become more aware of the life experiences that your veteran loved one has gone through.

In either case, learning about the unique needs of veterans in recovery can be beneficial. This knowledge can foster an informed and empathetic recovery journey.

Risk Factors for Substance Abuse in Veterans

Veterans endure a plethora of hardships while on active duty. These hardships often challenge service members' sense of self and alter their perception of the world around them.

The combination of stressful military culture with unavoidable environmental stressors makes many veterans increasingly susceptible to substance abuse.

Military Culture

It is important to consider the vast differences between military culture and civilian life. These differences can lead to increased risk factors for substance abuse among veterans.

For example, military culture favors the use of alcohol and other drugs as coping mechanisms. Veterans may be pressured to use these substances for relief from emotional and physical pain.

Members of the armed forces may adopt substance-using and abusing behaviors without recognizing the consequences of doing so, as it is a norm of military culture. This can also keep veterans from recognizing that they have a problem that requires treatment to overcome.

Another factor to consider is that military culture is built on mental strength. As a result, active service members and veterans experience added pressure to deny their need for professional help, for fear of presenting themselves as weak. The National Insititute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, “[H]alf of military personnel have reported that they believe seeking help for mental health issues would negatively affect their military career.”

Environmental Stressors

In addition to the challenges that military culture presents, veterans also experience a number of environmental stressors while on duty. An article by Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation highlights environmental stressors that are specific to military personnel.

These stressors may occur during:

  • Deployment
  • Combat exposure
  • Post-deployment/civilian reintegration

Our nation's servicemen risk their lives while they serve. These high stakes require many military personnel to undergo intense exposure to combat, which often includes traumatic experiences. In addition to warzone deployment, traumatic experiences can include training accidents, military sexual trauma (MST), and other life-threatening experiences while on duty.

These experiences increase veterans' risks of mental health disorders. These include not only depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) but also substance abuse and SUD. Many veterans may turn to alcohol and other drugs in an attempt to self-medicate their distress. Eventually, this can inform SUD.

How Can Treatment Facilities Honor the Unique Needs of Veterans in Recovery?

Transitioning to civilian life from military life can be wrought with challenges. The scope of these challenges cannot be understated. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) explains, “Every year, approximately 200,000 men and women transition out of active-duty service and return to civilian life.”

This transition requires both veterans as well as their families to “reorient their lives across multiple domains including employment, finances, housing, social supports, and health.” These are major changes that affect all aspects of someone's lifestyle.

Addiction treatment facilities must honor the unique needs of veterans in recovery to ensure lasting sobriety. One of the main ways that treatment facilities can do this is by utilizing trauma-informed care.

The Value of Trauma-Informed Care

Trauma-informed treatment takes into consideration how traumatic experiences can inform substance abuse and SUD.

A publication by SAMHSA further explains trauma-informed care. It states:

Trauma-informed care acknowledges the need to understand a patient’s life experiences to deliver effective care and has the potential to improve patient engagement, treatment adherence, health outcomes, and provider and staff wellness. 

Treatment facilities that utilize trauma-informed care prioritize client safety, comfort, and compassion throughout treatment.

There are five core principles of trauma-informed care, highlighted by SAMHSA. These five principles are:

  1. Patient empowerment
  2. Choice
  3. Collaboration
  4. Safety
  5. Trustworthiness

Incorporating these attributes into treatment requires the use of an individualized treatment approach. With individualized treatment, veterans in recovery can have their unique needs for recovery met. This can be accomplished in any type of addiction treatment program that uses individualized care.

Additional Needs of Veterans in Recovery

There are many other ways that veterans in recovery can feel supported throughout treatment. For instance, treatment facilities must provide educational opportunities for veterans to ease their transition to civilian life. Veterans can benefit from building life skills, strengthening conflict resolution strategies, and learning anger management skills while in treatment.

Another essential component of effective treatment for veterans in recovery is peer support. While nearly all treatment programs offer peer support groups, veterans specifically can benefit from connecting with other veterans in treatment. This allows veterans an opportunity to connect with others who have shared life experiences, especially those that inform substance abuse.

Veterans of the armed forces have experienced significant exposure to traumatic experiences. This increases their vulnerability to substance abuse and addiction. Effective addiction treatment for veterans in recovery requires the use of trauma-informed care, as well as individualized treatment, peer connection, and opportunities for building life skills. At Pathways Recovery Center, we strive to meet the unique and individualized needs of all of our clients. If you are a veteran seeking recovery from substance abuse, our residential treatment program may be a good fit for you. Our facility provides a comfortable and serene living environment for clients as they begin their journey to healing. To learn more, call us today at (888) 771-0966.

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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