Veterans and Substance Problems

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that men and women serving in the military consume illicit/illegal drugs significantly less often than their civilian counterparts. While roughly 12% of all adults in the general population use drugs in the average month, only about 2% of active military personnel consume an illicit or illegal substance. The same stark difference in usage rates occurs among 18- to 25-year-olds, the age group with the greatest tendency to take drugs inside or outside of the military.

Unfortunately, men and women in the military do engage in the misuse of prescription medications with unusual frequency. While just 5% of the general public misuses prescription opioids or some other form of medication, the misuse rate in the military is approximately 11%. Not surprisingly, considerable numbers of servicemen and servicewomen develop abuse or addiction problems related to the medications they improperly consume. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that roughly 7% of all veterans have diagnosable abuse/addiction issues associated with the consumption of medications, drugs or alcohol. There is also significant overlap between diagnosable substance problems and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Figures from the National Center for PTSD indicate that almost one-third of all veterans who pursue treatment for substance problems have verifiable PTSD symptoms.

Veterans and Depression

Major depression is a severe and relatively common illness that can trigger debilitating changes in daily mood and behavior. While the rate for this disorder in the general public stands at approximately 6.7%, veterans of military service have a major depression rate of roughly 14%. (This figure may actually be low.) Previously acknowledged risk factors for depression in veterans include service-related disability and a declining ability to maintain a functional, independent daily routine. In the civilian population, older adults affected by depression typically have the highest risks for suicidal thinking and behavior. However, among veterans, younger adults have higher depression-related suicide risks. Other groups of veterans with clearly elevated suicide risks include men and Caucasian Americans.

Trauma, Depression and Drug Problems

In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from institutions including Old Dominion University, the Duke University School of Medicine and the Mid-Atlantic Region VA Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center used information collected from 2,304 former servicemen and servicewomen to explore the connection between emotional trauma exposure, depression and serious drug problems in military veterans. The researchers used the same information to explore the connection between emotional trauma exposure, PTSD and serious drug problems in military veterans. For each study participant, they gathered data that included drug use patterns in the previous year, emotional trauma exposure at any point between childhood and the period following military service, the presence or absence of depression symptoms and the presence or absence of PTSD symptoms. Four hundred fifty-three of the study participants were women.

The researchers ultimately concluded that military veterans have increased chances of experiencing diagnosable drug problems when they have depression symptoms and a history of emotional trauma exposure at any point in their lifetimes. This finding applies equally to men and women. Interestingly, the researchers did not find a similar link between veterans’ diagnosable drug problems, PTSD symptoms and a lifetime history of emotional trauma exposure.

The study’s authors believe that their findings underscore the importance of depression and emotional trauma exposure in determining the odds that a military veteran will get involved in seriously problematic drug use. They specifically note that trauma from all sources is relevant, not just the combat trauma exposure that largely differentiates veterans from the civilian U.S. population.


Choose a better life. Choose recovery.