Why Veterans Are Prone to Substance Misuse

If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors, text or call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. You can also chat online at https://988lifeline.org/. 998 is always free, confidential and available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If this is an active emergency, please call 911 for emergency medical services right away

Veterans face many unique challenges upon returning home after deployment. Many struggle with stress transitioning back into civilian life and have trouble coping with trauma from what they've witnessed or experienced. They may turn to illicit substances to self-medicate or misuse prescription pain medications. Over time, this can lead to addiction, a complex condition with adverse physical, psychological, financial and social consequences.

If you or someone you know is experiencing addiction, know that you are not alone. Several treatment programs are tailored specifically for veterans, helping them recover from addiction while accounting for their unique experiences. Learn about the risk factors and causes of addiction in veterans and how to start the healing journey here. 

What Causes Addiction in Veterans? 

Addiction is a chronic condition with complex causes. Veterans face many challenges that civilians do not experience, including the trauma of combat, as well as chronic pain and injuries. Without proper support, they may turn to substances to alleviate physical and emotional pain, which can worsen symptoms and lead to an unhealthy cycle.

Causes and factors that put veterans at higher risk of substance use disorder include: 


Studies show that 2 in every 10 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also struggle with some type of substance use disorder. Being deployed in a war zone, training accidents and sexual assault can all lead to PTSD. Other forms of trauma can include the death of a fellow service member or a severe injury or disability.

PTSD is characterized by the following symptoms:

  • Unwanted and distressing memories, flashbacks or dreams related to the trauma
  • Avoidance of anything that reminds you of the trauma, such as people, places or situations
  • Negative thoughts and moods, including depressive symptoms, self-blame or feeling estranged from others
  • Anger, aggression toward others, problems with concentration and sleep or being easily startled

PTSD can also lead to thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Without professional support for their PTSD, veterans might turn to substances like alcohol to avoid memories and self-medicate symptoms. 

Readjusting to Civilian Life

Transitioning from military to civilian life can be challenging and stressful for veterans. The military comes with structure and routine, and it can also be a shock when veterans return home after through war. Mentally, they may still be in combat, which can make them feel disorientated. This can also lead to isolation and depression since they are surrounded by people who do not share or understand their experiences.  

Entering the workforce and finding a place to live can be another stressor for veterans. They may not have had to live on their own or search for a civilian job in the past. Many might deal with homelessness and financial difficulties without access to proper resources. One study found that over 35,000 veterans had experienced homelessness on just a single night in January 2023. Without healthy coping skills and community support, veterans may turn to substances to deal with stress.

over 35,000 veterans experience homelessness

Lack of Social Support

As mentioned, many veterans face social isolation after leaving the military. They may return to families, relationships and even places that have changed drastically while they were away, which can be stressful to cope with. Many veterans feel misunderstood or estranged from others due to their experiences in the military, and they may lack a strong support system to healthily cope with stressors.


Many veterans avoid seeking help due to perceived stigmas about mental health. They may deal with self-blame or feel ashamed about seeking care for their mental health and turn to substances to cope with stressors. Stigmas can include:

  • Feeling ashamed or unconfident about seeking help for mental health.
  • Fearing discrimination due to societal stigmas that deem people with mental health issues as morally wrong.
  • A military culture that values self-reliance and stoicism that could promote harmful beliefs about those with mental illness.

As a result, veterans might not receive the proper treatment they need to care for mental health conditions and addiction. They may instead turn to substances to self-medicate. 

Medical Treatments for Pain

Collectively, veterans experience more severe pain compared to the general population. In 2021, an estimated 28% of veterans in the U.S. had chronic pain, compared to 19% of non-veterans. Common injuries and disabilities faced by veterans include loss of limbs, paralysis and sight and hearing loss.

Reports also find higher rates of traumatic brain injuries among veterans, impacting substance use. While the percentage of veterans prescribed opioids for pain management has declined in recent years, many still struggle with the misuse of opioids or taking medication improperly or more frequently than prescribed. Misuse can increase the risk of addiction.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Veterans often experience co-occurring mental health disorders alongside substance use. Addiction can worsen symptoms of mental health conditions and vice versa. One study found veterans who have experienced SUDs and homelessness were more likely to struggle with depression and suicidal behaviors, with 92.9% reporting a history of depression or anxiety. Depression and anxiety often stem from a combination of genetics and external stressors, and many veterans self-medicate their mental illness with substances.

Treatment Options for Veterans With Addiction

Know that you are not alone and help is available for veterans dealing with addiction, PTSD and other mental health conditions. An integrated, comprehensive approach involving medications, social support and therapy can often help you overcome the unhealthy cycle and start healing. Depending on the severity of your addiction and your unique needs, you might benefit from any of the following treatment options:

  • Medically-assisted detoxification
  • Trauma-based therapies
  • Group and individualized therapy
  • Art therapy 
  • Dual diagnosis services
  • Support groups
  • Community resources and aftercare services

In residential or outpatient treatment, you'll explore how your thoughts, feelings and behaviors interact and learn healthier coping strategies to deal with trauma and co-occurring conditions. Support groups will connect you with like-minded individuals, where you can share experiences and learn from other veterans to motivate each other through recovery. 

Get veteran addiction support

Get Veteran Addiction Support at Diamond House Detox

Veterans experience unique physical, mental and emotional difficulties upon returning home from deployment. With an increased risk of addiction, many can benefit from professional support and coping strategies to reintegrate successfully and lead a healthy, fulfilling life.

At Diamond House Detox, our treatment center is veteran-owned and run by people who have been in the same place as you. Our team includes people who were once in the military, had trouble with substances and sought professional support. They help foster a safe space for veterans, working alongside health professionals to deliver treatment tailored to your unique situation.

Our veteran treatment programs are integrative and comprehensive, providing support for addiction and co-occurring conditions like PTSD, depression and anxiety. We encourage you to contact us today to learn more about our services and how to start the recovery journey. 

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at Diamond House Detox
Vicky is a board certified Family Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, certified by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. She began her nursing career in healthcare by working in the intensive care unit, and then an inpatient psychiatric hospital. After realizing the mental health needs of both the patients and the families she served, she became a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Throughout her experience working with clients, she has developed a passion for those with dual diagnoses and specializes in helping individuals recognize the issues driving their substance use. This recognition has been crucial to the individual’s success in treatment. Vicky opened Diamond House Detox so that she can address these issues early on in a therapeutic environment to allow clients to transition to the next level in their recovery.
Vicky Magobet
Latest posts by Vicky Magobet (see all)