Supporting Our Heroes: Veterans, PTSD, and the Battle Against Substance Abuse

April 2, 2024

4 mins

Jackie Rosu


Substance use disorder (SUD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are two of the largest issues facing veterans today in the United States.

Substance use disorder (SUD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are two of the largest issues facing veterans today in the United States. Either of these two illnesses or the combination of them both concurrently, can make the transition back into civilian life incredibly difficult and can even prove fatal.

According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine, roughly 30% of all military personnel who committed suicides were preceded by a high level of alcohol or drug use. The study also found that 20% of high-risk behavior deaths within the same studied group could be attributed to alcohol or drug overdose.

This represents a massive problem that desperately needs solving, and it’s not a new one, either. Research suggests that this predates even the Vietnam War. A population of Vietnam veterans demonstrated a clear relationship between those suffering from PTSD also suffering from substance use disorder that only strengthened with the severity of their PTSD symptoms.

In this article, we will examine the relationship between PTSD and substance abuse in United States military veterans, as well as provide actionable steps you can take if you find yourself or a loved one suffering from one or both of these harmful illnesses.

The Numbers Behind PTSD and SUD Among Veterans

Approximately 6% of pre-deployed and 13% of post-deployed service members actively suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a recent study published by Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. In the same study, the reported lifetime prevalence of PTSD ranged between 7% and 8% of all veterans, markedly higher than that of the general civilian population.

Further, roughly 33% of service members suffered from high-risk drinking activity within the previous month of being surveyed, and 10% had an alcohol-related diagnosis in their medical records. Again, these were both significantly higher than the average American surveyed. 

There has also been a marked racial element of PTSD prevalence amongst veterans, with 11% of black veterans and 24% of Native American veterans suffering from the disorder compared to only 6% of white veterans across all branches of the US military. Rates of heavy drinking were reported to be largely the same amongst all groups within the previous year, hovering between 8-9%.

Exploring the Relationship Between Substance Abuse and PTSD in Veterans

Despite perhaps appearing to be unrelated on a surface level, there is a high degree of linkage between substance use disorder and PTSD. According to a study conducted by the US Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), 20% of veterans who suffer from symptoms of PTSD also suffer from a co-occurrence of substance use disorder.

Additionally, nearly 1 out of every 3 veterans actively seeking treatment for substance use disorder also suffers from PTSD, marking a clear relationship between the two illnesses within our nation’s veterans.

A Dual Solution Effective Treatment

As the relationship between substance use disorder and PTSD has become more and more widely acknowledged, treatments that actively address both in conjunction have increased in popularity. 

Concurrent Treatment of PTSD and Substance Use Disorders Using Prolonged Exposure (COPE) combines Prolonged Exposure therapy for PTSD with relapse prevention best practices for SUB. This double-sided approach has been shown to outperform treatment plans targeting only two at a time.

Does Substance Abuse Worsen PTSD in Veterans?

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for veterans to turn to harmful substances such as drugs and alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate and cope with PTSD. This only makes their symptoms worse, however, and places additional strain on the other key aspects of their lives, such as their relationships or professions.

This relationship extends to other harmful substances as well, such as nicotine, as we see that veterans suffering from PTSD tend to smoke at roughly twice the rate (6 out of 10 versus 3 out of 10, according to research conducted by the VA) as those that do not have the illness.

Understanding the Resources Available to You

There are many free and low-cost resources available for veterans suffering from PTSD, substance use disorder, or both concurrently. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has several programs and services available to veterans seeking help.

Every VA medical center in the United States has a dedicated SUD-PTSD specialist you can speak with to best determine a treatment plan that will work for you and your unique needs. Use the VA Locator to find the closest medical center to you.

The official website of the Department of Veteran Affairs provides more general information about the free and low-cost treatment options available.

Alternative Options to SUD-PTSD Care for Military Veterans

Unfortunately, however, these resources provided by the VA are not always enough or may not be available in non-VA treatment settings. If this is the case for you, make sure to reach out to private organizations or non-profits that specialize in helping individuals looking for affordable treatment for substance abuse and PTSD in veterans.

Many of these organizations exist on the local, state, and federal levels and provide an excellent alternative for those who find themselves in a position where they can’t take advantage of the offered VA services or simply aren’t happy with them.

Get Help Today With Never Alone Recovery

If you or somebody you know and love is struggling with substance use disorder and coping with PTSD, call us today at 844-365-4445 for a free consultation.

Never Alone Recovery has a team of dedicated, on-staff addiction recovery consultants who work to provide free drug rehab placement services. Our mission is to offer and provide unyielding support and compassion for those suffering from substance use disorder and PTSD, as well as their loved ones.

In addition to this article, we have a library of online resources and a 100% free online support group that meets weekly. No matter where you are in your recovery journey, always remember that you’re never alone.

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