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Veteran Stigmas: Why Vets Don’t Seek Help for Addiction

About 3.9 million veterans had a mental illness or substance use disorder (SUD) in 2019, and just under 500,000 had both a SUD and a mental illness.1 In 2020, 40.3 million people over the age of 12 had a SUD and 52.9 million people had a mental illness in the past year in the United States.2

Though mental health disorders and SUDs are prevalent in America and among veterans, many people don’t get the treatment they need. Only around half of the American adults with a serious mental illness who need treatment seek it, with stigma being a contributing factor to this disparity.3

Stigma is described as a challenge or blemish that a person is made to feel ashamed of, or a quality that makes them feel different or marginalized from others.3 Stigmatizing language is often used amongst people who struggle with SUDs; however, clinicians need to be cautious of using stigmatizing language in their practices.4

Addiction-related stigma often stems from outdated mindsets that addiction is a moral failing, that people struggling with addiction are to blame for their condition, or incapable of managing their treatment.4

Hearing stigmatizing language and feeling stigmatized by others can lead those with a SUD to avoid or be unwilling to seek treatment.4 Stigma can even impact the care a person receives from their healthcare provider.4 For veterans and people in active duty, stigmatizing beliefs have been cited as a barrier to mental healthcare more often than logistical challenges.5

How Does Addiction Stigma Affect Veterans?

Stigmatizing views, whether public- or self-stigma, related to addiction and treatment in the military cause many to avoid getting the care they need.5, 6 Unfortunately, this can cause conditions to worsen and can even lead to fatal outcomes.7, 9

Veteran addiction statistics indicate that the challenges associated with veteran addiction stigma is real and needs to be addressed so that people can get the care they need.

  • About 60% of military personnel who experience a mental illness or SUD don’t seek help.5
  • In a study on specific stigma-related reasons for not seeking treatment, 44.2% of respondents reported that they feared their unit’s leadership would view them differently and 42.9% reported they feared they’d be seen as weak.5
  • In the military and among veterans, stigma may also be grounded in the belief that service members can handle problems on their own.6
  • In a survey of stigma among military members in 2007-2008, 43.6% of respondents reported fears that seeking help could harm their career, 38% worried about diminishing levels of coworker confidence, and 29% had confidentiality concerns.6
  • Among veterans who had a SUD in 2019, 1 in 4 (343,000) struggled with illicit drug addiction, 4 in 5 (1 million) struggled with alcohol use, and 1 in 13 (98,000) struggled with both.1

Drug use can lead to serious health issues such as pulmonary disease, HIV/AIDS, various cancers, stroke, and heart disease.9 It can also cause death by overdose, depending on the substance.9 Excessive drinking can lead to similar issues, and both can increase instances of accidents and injuries.10

Veterans and Mental Health

Deployment and acclimating back to civilian life can increase the risk of mental health disorders and SUDs, and, if left untreated, these conditions can lead to long-lasting and potentially damaging consequences, including exacerbated SUD, suicidal behavior, and overall poor well-being.7

Mental health disorders can sometimes be present before the development of a SUD.9 Misusing substances may worsen mental health conditions of those who are vulnerable due to mental health problems.9

Veterans and active military personnel face unique mental health risks:

  • Roughly 1 in 5 veterans experiences a mental health disorder, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD.7
  • According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anywhere from 11 to 20% of veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) each year.8
  • Suicide rates for veterans were at an alarmingly high rate as of November 2021, having increased by 25% in 2020.8

Alcohol and Drug Addiction Stigmas Veterans Face

Veterans often face barriers when seeking quality treatment, including facing common stigmas and stereotypes related to addiction and/or receiving treatment. These may include beliefs that:5, 6

  • Seeking care will negatively affect their effectiveness.5
  • Seeking care may limit their career in the military.5
  • They will be blamed for the SUD or mental health disorder.5
  • They will be seen as weak.5
  • They will be treated differently by superiors.5
  • They should be embarrassed or ashamed of their condition.5
  • Others will lose confidence in them.5
  • Their friends, family, or supervisor(s) would have less respect for them.6
  • Their partner or supervisor(s) would not want them to get treatment.6

Contact us today at to talk with an Admissions Navigator who will give you the information you need to make the right decision for you and your loved ones.

Does Substance Abuse or Rehab Affect My VA Benefits?

Many veterans use their VA health benefits to gain coverage for substance abuse treatment (e.g., rehab or therapy). Seeking counseling, treatment, and support for a substance use disorder does not affect your VA benefits.11 The VA provides many different options for veterans who are seeking treatment for SUD, and the services available will vary based on your needs and your location.

The first step to getting care for a SUD through VA health benefits is to apply for VA health care.11 If you qualify, you can work with a VA primary care provider who will help screen you for SUD or mental health conditions and refer you to the specialists to get the care you need.11

If you don’t have a primary care doctor at the VA near you or haven’t been seen at a VA clinic or hospital, you can call the general information hotline at 800-827-1000, contact your local VA, or find a SUD program near you.11

If you don’t have VA health benefits, are homeless, or are at risk of being homeless, you may still be able to get care. Contact your local Community Resource and Referral Center or a Vet Center near you for more information.11

Overcoming and Coping with Veteran Stigmas

Veterans face unique challenges and risks for developing mental health conditions and SUDs, or both. Pushing off or avoiding treatment for such conditions may lead to worsened outcomes and negative overall well-being.

Though other barriers to getting quality care exist, including location and cost of treatment, stigma is among the most prevalent barriers.5, 6 When veterans self-stigmatize and associate treatment or mental health challenges with being weak or failing, it can negatively affect their self-esteem and increase the odds of them avoiding treatment.4

Overcoming self-stigma and cultural stigma related to addiction and mental health is crucial for veterans to get the care they need. Some tips for reducing and coping with self-stigma include:12, 13

  • Reminding yourself that the stigmatized messages (e.g., you’re weak if you need treatment or ask for help) are not true.
  • Lessening your exposure to stigmatized messages and/or experiences.
  • Growing your self-esteem and identity by acknowledging strengths, values, and other positive traits.
  • Relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga.
  • Engaging in favorite hobbies.
  • Talking to a loved one or fellow veteran who has worked to overcome their addiction or SUD can also help you improve your outlook on treatment and reduce the self-stigma.

If you are a veteran struggling with substance misuse, or have a loved one who is, American Addiction Centers (AAC) is here to help. Our admissions navigators understand the challenges associated with addiction and are available 24/7 to listen to your story and help you understand treatment options. Many of AAC facilities offer programs for first responders and veterans to address their unique needs. Contact us today to start the recovery journey today.