Alcoholism in Veterans: How the VA Treats Alcohol Use Disorders

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Published August 3, 2021 

 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines alcohol use disorder as a medical condition characterized by difficulty stopping or controlling the use of alcohol even when there are negative consequences.1 This condition affects millions of people in the United States, including a large proportion of veterans.2 Veteran populations are particularly susceptible to alcoholism. Aside from the health and social harm of alcohol use disorder, one study found that about one-third of military personnel who committed suicide were struggling with alcoholism or drug use beforehand.3 According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, veterans are more likely to turn to alcohol than other substances as a way to cope.3

However, veterans don’t need to struggle with alcoholism in silence. With proper alcohol addiction treatment, veterans can begin their recovery journey. The VA offers many services for veterans who are dealing with alcohol use disorder. Veterans alcohol rehab treatments may include behavioral therapies, pharmacological treatments, preventative screening, and inpatient programs.3

Table of Contents

The Definition of Alcoholism

Alcohol use disorder, generally referred to as alcoholism, is a medical condition. Although it may begin with a person making a willful choice to drink, the brain undergoes changes as a result of prolonged alcohol misuse.1 When someone suffers from an alcohol use disorder, some signs and symptoms will be noticeable. These include:1

  • Continued drinking even after they are inebriated.
  • Difficulty cutting down on drinking.
  • The inability to stop drinking.
  • Life spirals out of control due to alcohol.
  • Taking risks when under the influence.
  • Experiencing withdrawals after not drinking for a period of hours.
  • Drinking more to get the same “high” as before.

Often, people with mental health conditions will turn to drinking as a way to cope with their problems.1 This type of self-medicating only leads to greater distress because alcohol doesn’t treat the underlying mental health disorder. Consequently, mental health and alcohol use disorders should be treated in tandem to ensure you get to the root of the issue and avoid relapsing.

Alcoholism in Veterans

Veteran populations are at greater risk for all types of substance abuse, including alcohol addiction. This is largely due to their position as military personnel and the unique challenges and stresses posed by combat and reintegration into civilian life. Veterans are more susceptible to addiction issues due to the following reasons:3

  • Combat exposure.
  • Post-deployment civilian reintegration difficulties.
  • Deployment.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Depression.

In addition, some veterans have secondary factors that lead to alcoholism, such as past childhood abuse and trauma.

Statistics

Studies show that alcoholism in veterans is a prescient and growing concern.

  • It is estimated that over one in ten veterans struggle with an addiction.4
  • Alcohol is a common problematic substance for veterans, with approximately 10.5% of male veterans and 4.8% of female veterans struggling with alcohol use disorder.3
  • Alcohol was also linked to 20% of risky behaviors that led to deaths amongst veterans. This is highlighted by the fact that more than one in three military personnel are defined as hazardous drinkers, where are 5.4% qualify as heavy drinkers.5

Alcohol Abuse & Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders

Co-occurring mental health disorders often increase the risks of veterans developing an alcohol use disorder. While common mental health disorders like depression or anxiety can cause people to seek alcohol as a way to cope, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common condition affecting veterans that can increase the risk of alcoholism. Statistics show that one in three veterans who sought treatment for alcoholism also struggled with PTSD.4

PTSD is a mental health condition that occurs in people after they witness or experience a traumatic event.6 For military personnel, these events could involve anything from seeing people killed to feeling the earth shake when a bomb explodes. PTSD can manifest in veterans during service and during civilian life. Common symptoms of PTSD include:6

  • Recurring nightmares about incidents that occurred.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Anxiety.
  • Feeling on edge.

Homeless veterans have an even greater risk of co-occurring disorders, such as a mental illness and an alcohol use disorder.7 Finally, depression is also linked to substance use in veterans. All of the traumatic events in which veterans are exposed can lead to depression.3

Impacts of Alcoholism on Veterans

When left untreated, alcoholism has a detrimental effect on anyone, but it’s especially harmful to veterans. With all the difficulties they have gone through, especially if they’ve been in combat, alcoholism only worsens their condition. Research indicates there is a link between veterans who have experienced trauma during the military with alcohol use.8

Alcoholism among veterans may lead to homelessness, too.7 However, the research is still unclear; some data suggests that homelessness may lead veterans to developing an alcohol use disorder. Either way, there is a link between homeless veterans and various substance use and alcohol use disorders.7

Alcoholism in veterans is also linked to an increased risk of suicide. About 30% of suicides and 45% of attempts involved either alcohol or drug use.5

Signs of Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

If you suspect you or someone you love may have an alcohol use disorder, it’s helpful to know the signs and symptoms. To have an actual diagnosis, you must meet the criteria that are outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).1 If you have any 2 of the following signs during a 12-month period, it could indicate alcohol use disorder:1

  • Ended up drinking more or longer than you planned.
  • Have tried to cut down or stop drinking but couldn’t.
  • Spend a lot of time drinking or getting over the aftereffects of drinking (hangover).
  • Have cravings to drink.
  • Discovered that drinking—or being sick from drinking—is interfering with daily responsibilities, such as your job, family, bills, or home.
  • Didn’t stop drinking even though it causes more trouble with family or friends.
  • Stopped engaging in pleasurable activities (or cut back on them) in order to drink.
  • Keep getting into risky situations while or after drinking, such as drunk driving.
  • Kept drinking even though you feel depressed or anxious doing so.
  • Need to drink much more to get the same effect as you once had in the beginning.
  • When the effects of alcohol wear off, you notice withdrawal symptoms, such as insomnia, shakiness, anxiety, moodiness, depression, nausea, restlessness, or sweating.

Treatment Options for Veterans

A range of alcohol addiction treatments exist to help veterans with recovery. It’s important to meet with a clinical therapist and determine what treatment options are best for your situation. The various treatment levels differ in intensity and include the following:

  • Detox.
  • Inpatient/residential treatment.
  • Intensive outpatient treatment (IOP).
  • Outpatient therapy.

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The VA on Alcoholism

The VA takes substance use in veterans very seriously. The VA understands the man challenges faced by veterans, both during combat and upon return to civilian life. Whether it’s substance abuse or alcohol abuse, the VA assists veterans in getting on the road to recovery.

Alcohol abuse programs are offered through VA’s mental health services and include treatments with or without medication, depending on your needs.8 There are also options for individual and group therapy that veterans can take advantage of while getting alcohol addiction treatment.8

If you have VA benefits, you can talk to your VA provider about starting treatment.8 You can also contact the local VA near you or check with a veterans alcohol rehab facility to determine if they accept VA benefits.

Will Alcohol Rehab or Abuse Affect My Veteran Benefits?

In some cases, getting treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction will make you eligible for disability benefits.9 If the therapists determine that your alcoholic abuse was a direct result of being in the military or it was made worse, then you are eligible to file a claim for disability benefits.9 Since alcohol use disorder is defined as a mental health condition and a lifelong, chronic condition, you can apply for disability after beginning a treatment program. Alcoholism in veterans can be linked to service-related mental health conditions. For example, if a veteran developed PTSD after a traumatic event during services, and consequently develops an alcohol use disorder as a result of PTSD, they may be eligible for disability benefits.

It’s worth noting that there are some scenarios in which substance abuse may negatively impact your veterans benefits. Most of these scenarios are linked to the concept of willful misconduct. Essentially, the VA defines willful misconduct as when a veteran engages in risky behavior without care about potential negative consequences.14 For example, if a veteran knowing get drunks and injures themselves, the VA would consider this willful misconduct, and likely deny disability benefits for the injuries.14

The VA Disability Rating for Alcohol Use Disorders

The VA uses a disability rating when giving benefits to veterans. The VA will rate the severity of your service-induced disability.10 This rating determines how much compensation you will receive.10 The higher the rating, the more you receive in compensation. For example, in 2020, if your disability rating was 30% and you have a dependent spouse, you received $441.35 a month. If it was 60%, you would receive $1,146.39.11 This monthly payment can assist you with continuing your addiction treatment program.

Is Alcohol Rehab Covered by the VA or Other Veteran Benefits?

Going to alcohol rehab is a vital part of recovery. Fortunately, the VA offers services for veterans dealing with alcoholism.12 If the local VA is full, you can use a VA-approved facility by going through the Community Care Network (CCN).13 This program matches veterans with rehab facilities that work in conjunction with VA to provide needed services.13 Additionally, Medicare and Medicaid offer coverage; TRICARE and TriWest are additional insurances that specialize in veteran care. With so many options, you will be on your way to a brighter future.

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Sources

  1. NIH. (2020). Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.
  2. NIH. (2021). Alcohol Facts and Statistics.
  3. NCBI. (2017). Substance use disorders in military veterans: prevalence and treatment challenges.
  4. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). PTSD: National Center for PTSD.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Substance Use and Military Life.
  6. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). PTSD: National Center for PTSD.
  7. Ding, K., Slate, M. & Yang, J. History of co-occurring disorders and current mental health status among homeless veterans. BMC Public Health 18, 751 (2018).
  8. VA U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2021). Treatment Programs for Substance Use Problems.
  9. VA U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2021). Eligibility for VA disability benefits.
  10. VA U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2021). About VA disability ratings.
  11. VA U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2021). 2021 Veterans disability compensation rates.
  12. VA U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Substance use treatment for Veterans.
  13. VA U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2021). Community Care Network.
  14. NOLO. (2021). When willful misconduct in the military makes a veteran ineligible for benefits.