Alcoholism in Military Veterans


Alcohol abuse is a serious problem for the veteran population. Issues such as trauma, military sexual assault, combat exposure, and depression can contribute to or worsen a veteran’s drinking. Veterans may drink to cope with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and end up making it worse. Struggling veterans can find hope in treatment that addresses both their alcohol use and any mental health disorders from which they suffer. 

Veterans’ Alcohol Abuse Statistics

Man drinking shot

Alcohol abuse is an issue that impacts both active-duty military and veterans alike. The following statistics illustrate just how big of a concern drinking is for active and veteran servicemembers:1–4

  • Alcohol use disorders are the most common type of substance use disorder in military personnel.
  • Servicemembers with high combat exposure are more likely than their counterparts with no such exposure to engage in problem alcohol use, both heavy drinking (27% vs. 17%) and binge drinking (55% vs. 45%).
  • An estimated 12% of Army soldiers who came home from Iraq reported problems with their alcohol use.
  • More than 20% of all servicemembers say they drink heavily.
  • Veterans are more likely to use alcohol and to drink heavily than non-veterans.
  • Alcohol use disorders are more prevalent among male veterans than female veterans (10.5% vs. 4.8%).
  • Among homeless veterans who reported having overdosed, alcohol was the substance most commonly reported as the cause.
  • Alcohol use in military populations is linked to increased suicide risk.

Risk Factors for Alcoholism in Veterans

Servicemembers and veterans drink for a variety of reasons. They may drink for social reasons (e.g., to bond or fit in), or they may drink to address internal issues such as emotional pain or anxiety.3

Drinking that is socially motivated appears to be associated with fewer negative consequences than drinking motivated by internal factors.3 Veterans whose drinking is triggered by a desire to cope with an internal problem such as stress may be more at risk of developing a problem with alcohol over time.3 Emotional turmoil and mental health issues, such as PTSD and depression, are common among veterans, and these are the types of internal issues that can lead a person to drink.

PTSD

PTSD is commonly diagnosed in veterans and is a known risk factor for alcohol abuse.5,6 Among Vietnam veterans seeking treatment for PTSD, up to 80% have problems with alcohol.5 PTSD may arise as a result of several different service-related stressors such as combat exposure, having to kill another person during combat, and military sexual trauma.1,7

War veterans with PTSD commonly engage in binge drinking, and according to the National Center for PTSD, binge drinking can be an attempt to cope with or suppress traumatic memories.4,5

Depression

Another mental health condition that may lead a veteran to drink heavily is depression. Symptoms of depression after military service have been shown to lead to or worsen problem drinking in veterans, and psychological turmoil from the disorder can worsen a veteran’s cravings for alcohol.1

One study found that it is rare for a veteran to present for treatment with substance use disorder only. More commonly, veterans are diagnosed with both a substance use disorder and a co-occurring mental health disorder such as depression.1

Military Sexual Trauma

Military sexual trauma (MST)—which may include sexual assault, battery, or harassment during military service—may be related to several adverse physical and mental health issues, including increased drinking.7,8

In a large study of military reservists, female reservists who experienced high levels of sexual harassment were more likely to misuse alcohol than those who experienced lower levels of harassment. Female reservists are also likely to abuse alcohol as a way of coping with symptoms of depression that arise as a result of military sexual harassment.7

Military sexual trauma may lead to the development of certain mental health disorders.8 According to the VA, the most common disorder to arise after MST is PTSD, which is related to an increased risk of alcohol and other substance use disorders.5,8

Past Traumas

A veteran’s history of trauma before military service can raise their risk for developing an alcohol use disorder. For example, someone with a history of child physical or sexual abuse may be more likely to have a drinking problem as a veteran.1

Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Veterans

Woman having panic attack

Alcohol misuse can take a severe toll on the lives of veterans. Heavy drinking has been shown to have a very negative impact on long-term health.1 Binge drinkers may be particularly at-risk of the negative outcomes of alcohol abuse, including legal problems, relationship issues, and job loss; one study showed them to be twice as likely as non-binge drinkers to have these issues.1 

In the veteran population, alcohol use is related to an increased risk of interpersonal violence, poor health, and early death.1 

Alcohol can also worsen the very symptoms that veterans try to improve through drinking. For example, veterans may drink to try and better manage their PTSD symptoms, but in the long run, those symptoms are often made worse by alcohol, and new problems that make life even more difficult may develop.5 For example, the National Center for PTSD explains that veterans who suffer from PTSD and have drinking problems are more likely to struggle with other serious issues including:5

  • Panic attacks and extreme worries.
  • Depression.
  • Behavior that harms other people.
  • Problems with other drugs.
  • Chronic illnesses such as diabetes or heart disease.
  • Chronic pain.

Veterans Alcohol Rehab

If you are experiencing the signs of alcoholism, such as an inability to stop despite a desire to do so, seek out professional treatment. Attempting to detox from alcohol on your own is so dangerous it can actually threaten your life. Alcohol rehab for veterans can provide a safe environment in which to withdraw and ongoing treatment that addresses your reasons for drinking.

Veterans need integrated care for all the problems they are experiencing in order to achieve lifelong recovery.

Laguna Treatment Hospital’s parent company, American Addiction Centers (AAC), operates two facilities that gear treatment to the specific needs of the veteran community. AAC understands that many veterans struggle with both addiction and one or more mental health issues. Veterans need integrated care for all the problems they are experiencing in order to achieve lifelong recovery, and that is why our veterans’ programs provide co-occurring disorder treatment, with a specialized focus on topics that matter to veterans and therapies that address issues such as trauma.

Our Las Vegas, NV and Hollywood, FL locations are both authorized community care providers, meaning that some veterans will be eligible to receive treatment at these programs at the rate they would pay with the VA. If you’re interested in learning more about how we can help you or a loved one find renewed hope in our veterans’ programs, call us today at 949-565-2377. We are here for any time of the day, any day of the week.

References:

  1. Teeters, J. B., Lancaster, C. L., Brown, D. G., & Back, S. E. (2017). Substance use disorders in military veterans: prevalence and treatment challengesSubstance abuse and rehabilitation8, 69–77. https://doi.org/10.2147/SAR.S116720
  2. Riggs KR, Hoge AE, DeRussy AJ, et al. Prevalence of and Risk Factors Associated With Nonfatal Overdose Among Veterans Who Have Experienced HomelessnessJAMA Netw Open.2020;3(3):e201190. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.1190
  3. Herberman Mash, et. al. (2016). Alcohol Use and Reasons for Drinking as Risk Factors for Suicidal Behavior in the U.S. Army. Military Medicine, 181, 811–820.
  4. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.) PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans.
  5. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). PTSD and Problems with Alcohol Use.
  6. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). How Common is PTSD in Veterans?
  7. Schumm, J. A., & Chard, K. M. (2012). Alcohol and stress in the militaryAlcohol research : current reviews34(4), 401–407.
  8. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Military Sexual Trauma.


About The Contributor

Scot Thomas, M.D.
Scot Thomas, M.D.

Senior Medical Editor, American Addiction Centers

Dr. Thomas received his medical degree from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. During his medical studies, Dr. Thomas saw firsthand the multitude of lives impacted by struggles with substance abuse and addiction, motivating... Read More


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