Veterans are some of the most vulnerable and underserved populations. Whether they have seen combat or not, they are likely to have witnessed traumatic situations, and could be diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). They also have high risk of depression and anxiety. All individuals cope with stressors differently, but there is a notable presence of substance abuse among veterans.
It is no secret that resilience is a fundamental characteristic of the military, and the ability to adapt and remain steadfast is thought to be needed for survival and success. While it is true that this type of strength is needed for the work they do, it does not mean that they are not experiencing stress, depression, and anxiety. Because of this, a veteran who is suffering may appear to have everything under control. This is likely a strategy to not show weakness or vulnerability. Overcoming this stigma is one of the first challenges because it often brings up feelings of guilt and failure (“Moral Injury”), but we know that, just like a non-military person with mental disorders, it is not a moral failure but a disease that can be brought on by environmental stresses.
Substances as Coping Mechanisms
Upon first glance, substances appear to be a silent way to cope with feelings of depression, stress, and PTSD symptoms. Uniformed service members are at risk of turning to a substance to alleviate their anxiety, to help with insomnia, to forget painful memories, and more. Furthermore, alcohol consumption is widely accepted in the military, and is a rite of passage in some situations where camaraderie is very important. The problems often arise after the veteran is no longer on active duty or has returned to civilian life and they cannot reckon with what they have experienced.
After serving in any capacity, there is a lot of readjusting to be done. Here is a breakdown of some of the problems that can surface due to operational stress for individuals who have served:
- Anger and Aggression: While sometimes encouraged in military settings, this behavior can be disruptive in civilian relationships, particularly in domestic settings or in the workplace, and can sometimes lead to trouble with the law.
- Anxiety: Feeling nervous or guilty for being “safe” at home, feeling inadequate, or having anxiety about interacting with those around you are typical signs of anxiety.
- Depression: Sadness or feeling down more often than not. This might be marked by sluggishness, grief, hopelessness, and withdrawal from others.
- Suicidal ideation: Thinking about ending your life or wanting to. Making a plan or “getting things in order” for others if you were to pass away (*If you or a loved one are feeling suicidal or exhibiting signs of suicidal ideation, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 and dial “1” for the Veterans Hotline. If it is an emergency, please call 911 immediately).
- “Moral Injury”: The Wounded Warrior Project describes this as a ‘lasting and powerful psychological wound that is caused by doing, failing to prevent, or observing acts that go against deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.’ This very layered subset of combat trauma can make it very difficult for a person to form intimate relationships, trust others, or connect with their faith or spirituality.
- PTSD: If a person was on active duty and was exposed to danger, loss of life, traumatic injury on other people, etc., this can often result in PTSD. A person afflicted with PTSD may feel the need to be constantly vigilant, always ready for an attack, or to be reliving the dramatic events in their mind. This can also crop up as nightmares or even flashbacks/hallucinations.
To alleviate the many mental challenges these symptoms present, it makes sense to want to escape the mind, as it has become something of an enemy. One might think that a substance will help ease the pain. A few beers will help draw out some euphoria or happy memories, and might ease tension with their non-military loved ones. Prescription pills that may have been prescribed to help with pain from a combat injury may seem to lift feelings of depression, too. Just as a non-military person gets addicted to these substances that seem to offer relief, it always leads to more harm than good.
How to Know When to Seek Help
Though the exact origin of when a person began to feel combat trauma is difficult to pin down, we are able to comb out the symptoms that stem from it and then treat them concurrently. This includes:
- Difficulty concentrating or finding joy in everyday activities
- Trouble in relationships
- Memory problems
- Worthlessness, hopelessness
- Trouble sleeping
- Substance abuse
If someone is displaying any of these symptoms, they may be experiencing combat trauma. Self-medicating with substances to try to deal with them is an understandable reaction, but when it leads to addiction, it can destroy a person’s life and the lives of those around them.
The good news? Treatment can help with Combat Trauma. More specifically, treatment tailored for Uniformed Service personnel is available. If you or a loved one are looking for guidance, we would be happy to help you. Our Uniformed Service Program offers specialized and effective treatment for active or retired service professionals struggling with substance use or any of the aforementioned problems, such as PTSD, anxiety, or depression. Please give us a call today.