Navy Veterans and Substance Abuse


Veterans are at an increased risk for developing substance use disorders (SUDs).1 Risk factors include deployments, exposure to combat, difficulty transitioning out of the military into civilian life, and lifetime exposure to trauma (e.g. experiencing or witnessing physical or sexual violence as a child).1

SUDs in veterans are frequently associated with mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or anxiety.1

Veterans suffer from mental health disorders and SUDs at high rates. Statistics show that:1,2

  • About 11% of veterans who come to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system for the first time meet the diagnostic criteria for an SUD.
  • More than one million people are treated by the VA for mental health disorders or SUDs every year.
  • More than one-third of all veterans in VA inpatient programs are diagnosed with a mental health disorder or SUD.2
  • Among veterans addicted to both alcohol and drugs, an estimated 75% suffer from PTSD.

Alcohol Abuse in the Navy

Man hunched over drink

While Navy personnel are forbidden to use illicit drugs while enlisted, alcohol is not an illegal substance. Alcohol is often used as a way to manage feelings of boredom, loneliness, and stress.3

Alcohol is readily available to soldiers and drinking while on shore leave is a common occurrence. Heavy drinking is not generally cause for punishment unless a sailor is too drunk to return to the ship at the expected time.3

Drinking habits can continue and worsen after a sailor leaves the Navy, especially without the structure of the service. Consider the following:3,4,5

  • Veterans are more likely than non-veterans to report heavy alcohol use
  • Binge drinking is more common among military personnel than civilians.
  • 65% of veterans in treatment report a problem with alcohol, nearly twice that of civilians.
  • About 10% of veterans returning to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan who were treated in the VA had a problem with alcohol or other drugs.

In the Navy’s Keep What You Earned campaign, a campaign to warn about the consequences of alcohol abuse, provides a set of red flags for drinking too much, which include:6 

  • Impaired judgment.
  • Mood swings, anger, or depression.
  • Slowed reflexes or reaction time.
  • Taking excessive risks.
  • Blackouts, or having trouble remembering events.

If you are consistently drinking to excess or using another other substance in ways that are causing harm to your physical or mental health, or other areas of your life, you may need help.

Warning Signs of Addition in Navy Vets

You can also look for some of the clinical signs of a substance use disorder which include:

  • Cutting back or quitting activities (hobbies, socializing, or work-related) because of use.
  • Difficulty fulfilling obligations at work, school, or home because of use.
  • Persistently wanting or trying to cut back or stop using.
  • Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from the effects of a substance.
  • Using again after knowing it has caused or worsened an ongoing physical or mental health problem.

VA Substance Abuse Assessment

The VA offers a short, confidential, online screening tool to assess alcohol and drug use and help you determine if you might have a problem. Once it is completed, you can print the results to share with your doctor or mental health professional and discuss further steps if needed.

Suicide Risk and Prevention

As with other branches of the military, suicide in Navy personnel and veterans is an ongoing concern. The Navy offers a variety of resources to educate personnel and raise awareness of the services available to people at risk of suicide.

If you or someone you know needs help dealing with suicidal thoughts, help is available 24/7.

Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Veterans can also utilize the Veteran Crisis Line via text 838255 or via online chat with a crisis counselor.

 

Suicide Warning Signs

Man in dark room

Suicide attempts are often preceded by warning signs. Using the acronym IS PATH WARM can help you identify red flags:8

  • Ideation: suicidal thoughts, threats, or statements (written or verbal).
  • Substance abuse: often associated with suicide in veterans.1 p70
  • Purposelessness: can also include feeling that there is no sense in living any longer.
  • Anxiety: can also be expressed as feeling agitated, having nightmares, experiencing insomnia, or sleeping too much.
  • Trapped: feeling as if there is no other way out of your current situation.
  • Hopelessness: about yourself, others, or your future.
  • Withdrawal: feeling of being isolated from people, activities, or society in general.
  • Anger: having difficulty controlling angry feelings, experiencing rage, wanting to seek revenge for perceived insult or slight.
  • Recklessness: taking risks, behaving impulsively, or acting without thinking of the outcome.
  • Mood changes: behaving erratically or showing drastic changes in mood.

Suicide Risk Factors

Several factors can increase a veteran’s risk of suicide. These include: 9

  • Access to lethal means.
  • Change in Navy status, such as discharge or retirement.
  • Death of a loved one.
  • Difficulties in personal life, work, or school.
  • Difficulty in receiving mental health treatment.
  • Disciplinary or legal issues.
  • Experiencing severe or long-lasting stress.
  • Exposure to trauma.
  • Family history of suicide.
  • Feeling abandoned or rejected.
  • Financial struggles.
  • History of abuse.
  • Past suicide attempts.
  • Physical or mental health issues.
  • The recent end of a marriage or relationship.
  • Substance abuse.

Protective factors help people properly cope with stress and lower the risk of suicide.10 These include:10

  • An ability to solve problems and resolve conflicts in non-violent ways.
  • Being able to get care for your physical and mental health.
  • Caring for your overall health through a balanced diet and regular exercise.
  • Feeling like you contribute to or are responsible for others.
  • Feeling like you belong as part of your community.
  • Feeling optimistic.
  • Having a feeling of purpose.
  • Having a sense of meaning in your life.
  • Having strong relationships with family and friends.
  • Little or no access to lethal means.
  • No issues with substance abuse.
  • Strong feelings of self-worth.
  • Valuing self-preservation.

Navy Suicide Prevention Resources

The Navy offers a Navy Suicide Prevention Handbook with warning signs, ways to spot red flags on social media, tips for moving forward after someone attempts suicide, resources for sailors, veterans, and families, and much more.

There is also a military crisis hotline available 24/7 for free and completely support for service members and veterans in crisis:

Other Crisis Resources

More crisis resources are available to veterans. These include:

Drug and Alcohol Rehab for Veterans of the Navy

Veterans with SUDs can find treatment through their local VA treatment centers, which offer a range of services depending on your needs.

Navy Veterans Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program at Desert Hope

Desert Hope Treatment Center

If you are a veteran in need of substance abuse treatment, you may be able to receive care at Desert Hope and have it covered by the VA. The MISSION Act, enacted in 2018, expands access to community care providers for veterans when they are unable to receive the necessary care with the VA due to issues like their location, excessive wait times, or a lack of specialty care.11,12

The VA approves certain facilities as community care providers (CCPs), and Desert Hope is one such facility available to Navy veterans seeking help. Our unique veterans and first responders program offers the highest-quality evidence-based treatment for veterans struggling with addiction and other mental health issues.

First, confirm with VA staff that you are eligible and authorized for community care and obtain the necessary referral before your appointment.12

Sources:

  1. Teeters, J.B., Lancaster, C.L., Brown, D.G., & Back, S.E. (2017). Substance use disorders in military veterans: Prevalence and treatment challenges. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 8, 69-77.
  2. Lan, C.W., Fiellin, D.A., Barry, D.T., Bryant, K.J., Gordon, A.J., Edelman, E.J., … Marshall, B.D. (2016). The epidemiology of substance use disorders in US veterans: A systematic review and analysis of assessment methods. The American Journal on Addictions, 25(1), 7-24.
  3. Ames, G., & Cunradi, C. Alcohol use and preventing alcohol-related problems among young adults in the military.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Substance use and military life.
  5. S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). PTSD and substance abuse in veterans.
  6. Navy Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention. (2013). Keep what you’ve earned.
  7. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  8. Navy Personnel Command. (2017). Suicide warning signs.
  9. Navy Personnel Command. (2016). Risk factors.
  10. Navy Personnel Command. (2019). Protective factors.
  11. S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). Community care.
  12. S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). Understanding community care.


About The Contributor

Amanda Lautieri
Amanda Lautieri

Senior Web Content Editor, American Addiction Centers

Amanda Lautieri is a Senior Web Content Editor at American Addiction Centers and an addiction content expert for Desert Hope Treatment Center. She holds a bachelor's degree and has reviewed thousands of medical articles on substance abuse and... Read More


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