The Relationship Between Veterans and Opioids

It is common knowledge that the United States is in the middle of an Opioid epidemic, and that no group has been spared. Addiction and overdose rates continue to rise, and we are not at the point where drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US. The brave men and women who have served in the US Military often face a tough time adjusting back to civilian life. This can open the door to the abuse of drugs and alcohol, including Opioids. Consequently, addiction issues involving veterans and Opioids are becoming more common.

Veterans Returning Home

Veterans face a lot of obstacles when coming home. Anxiety disorders, old and fresh injuries, and loss are all hanging over the heads of men and women returning from active war zones. While many civilians can see Veterans coming home as a good thing for their mental health, it isn’t always an easy thing to adjust to, and can actually add a lot more strain.

You are suspicious, tightly wound, and easily angered. I remember several times waking up in my bed even a few months after deployment and panicking because I couldn’t find my weapon.

Jonathan Kirk Davis
Veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Sergeant in the United States Marine Corp

Returning home today, there isn’t much security for many veterans. Many face unemployment, feelings of alienation, and lack of financial support. When they do need help, it is hard for them to come forward to friends and family because of their background, and insecurities around where they fit in now. When this happens, it opens a door to “self-medication.”

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Veterans and Opioids

Veterans And Opioids Often First Meet As A Result Of A Prescription To Ease Pain Caused By Severe InjuryServing in the military can be physically and mentally straining. The stress involved would push many ordinary citizens to use illicit drugs. Those who are enlisted in active duty and veterans, however, are more often introduced to Opioid use through prescription.

Opioids are some of the most commonly prescribed pain killers in the world, especially for severe pain that accompanies traumatic injuries. Many servicemen and women are prescribed Opioid pain relievers (OPRs) as a result of injuries they suffer in the line of duty, both in and out of combat. Unfortunately, Opioids are incredibly addictive, and even those who strictly follow prescriptions may develop a dependence. This is especially true of especially potent and long-lasting Opioids. Even worse, the euphoric effects of most Opioids can temporarily lessen the emotional trauma that many veterans experience, leading many to use these drugs to self-medicate a variety of mental health conditions.


The number of pain reliever prescriptions written by military physicians quadrupled over 8 years to 3.8 million in 2009.


The Department of Defense reported that 11.7% of veterans will turn to misuse of prescription drug misuse.


Only 40% of veterans who screen positive for emotional and SUDs will seek help for their mental health.

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PTSD, Veterans, and Opioids

One of the biggest issues that many veterans face is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD can include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Memory problems
  • Low sense of self-worth
  • Hopelessness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Relationship problems
  • Aggression
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Self-destructive behavior (self-harm or substance abuse)

Originally known as “shellshock” and then “battle fatigue,” PTSD is all too common among soldiers today, but many who suffer from the disorder don’t come forward for treatment because of the associated stigma. Retired service members often cite fear of personal embarrassment, disappointing their former comrades, and being dishonorably discharged as reasons why they don’t seek help. These reasons push Veterans to hide what is going on from friends and family and look for other solutions, such as self-medicating with Opioids.

Because many Veteran’s don’t seek help for PTSD, doctors improperly prescribe medication. An opioid, that was prescribed to treat physical pain can cause an adverse reaction when mixed with PTSD, worsening the already present symptoms or creating others. The patient may discover that the drug temporarily alleviates the symptoms of PTSD, leading them to use more and more. Eventually, tolerance develops and their body becomes physically dependent on the substance to function “normally.”

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PTSD as a Co-Occurring Disorder in Veterans

Opioids only mask the symptoms of PTSD. They do not actually treat the condition. This means that as an opioid Addiction develops, the user’s PTSD is still present. This combination of a mental health condition and addiction is known as co-occurring disorders.

Over 20% of Veterans who suffer from PTSD will develop an addiction or dependence to drugs or alcohol. Most of these individuals think they’re doing what’s best for them and their loved ones but are actually creating a worse issue. When mixed with substances like Opioids, the effects of PTSD can become worse, including worse flashbacks, worse aggression, and worse sleeping problems. This will push most who are suffering from these problems to abuse increasing amounts of Opioids, creating a dangerous cycle that quickly spirals into addiction.

Treatment for Veterans

When treating an addiction and a co-occurring disorder, especially one as severe as PTSD, finding somewhere that has a good understanding of both can be invaluable in the process of recovery. If you are, or someone you love is, a veteran suffering from addiction, do not be afraid to come forward. There are dedicated treatment specialists who can answer all of your questions and help place you in a facility that will help you transform your life. Take the first step to recovery, and contact an expert today.

Last Edited: April 20, 2018

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