There has been a much greater awareness of the complex needs of our nation’s Veterans in recent years. Shocking statistics, like 17 Veteran suicides per day, and 1 in 3 Veterans reporting having been arrested underscore the challenges we face in providing support for their mental, physical, and emotional health.

Why do military Veterans face such daunting challenges, and what steps can we take to support them?

Veterans Struggle With Substance Use At Higher Rates Than Average

While attempting to manage the difficult memories and painful experiences of seeing combat from the frontlines, many Veterans turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. 11% of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars received diagnoses of substance abuse disorders, according to one study using data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

65% of veterans who seek substance abuse services do so for alcohol use, which, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is over twice the national average. Chronic pain is also a common issue for military veterans, with many using opioid medications to manage the pain. These painkillers come with the risk of addiction, overdose, or a shift to illicit drug use.

Other Mental Health Diagnoses Are Higher For Vets

Combat takes a toll on Veterans’ mental health as well. In one study, almost 25% of enlisted soldiers surveyed suffered from at least one mental health diagnosis, with 11% having two or more co-occurring diagnoses. Over 20% of veterans who suffer from a substance use disorder also have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to the VA. Up to 50% of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans have experienced a mental health diagnosis.

If untreated, these mental health issues, over time, have devastating impacts.  Veterans are at 50% higher risk for suicide than the general population, with over 120,000 soldiers dying by suicide since 2001. Being a veteran also carries an increased risk of homelessness, particularly for veterans of color.

Overcoming Stigmas against Mental Health Help

The above statistics are harrowing and speak to just some of the difficulties faced by military Veterans. Many people contact me about a Veteran in their life, wondering what they can do to convince them to accept help.

Often, soldiers have a hard time admitting they have a problem and admitting there is a problem is a prerequisite to accepting the vital help available.

Unfortunately, there is still a good deal of stigma around seeking help for mental, emotional, and substance abuse issues. There are organizations providing support, but veterans often struggle to pursue these services, often because of a lack of social support or fear of judgment.

The warrior ethos of self-sufficiency, and the spirit of “never say die,” is drilled into Veterans during basic training and throughout military service.  There is even a lawsuit being brought against the Army for their traditional practice of discharging dishonorably Veterans who struggle with substance use disorder.

What Can Be Done For Our Soldiers?

If you are worried about a veteran in your life, here are some steps to take to support them:

  • Ask them how they’re doing. If you’re concerned about someone’s substance abuse, change in behavior, or overall mental health, simply ask. Breaking the stigma of mental health and substance abuse can start with one simple question: “how are you really?”
  • Offer to attend a support group or meeting with them. Many people are hesitant to take that first step to seek help, so going to a group or meeting with a friend can alleviate that fear or resistance.
  • Let them know they’re not alone. Social media may be more popular than ever, but loneliness remains an epidemic. 52% of Americans report feelings of loneliness, with nearly as many indicating a lack of significant relationships in their lives. Letting your friend or loved one know you’re there for them can make a huge difference.
  • Connect them to resources. Realistically, you can’t force someone to seek help if they don’t want to. But you can provide them with the tools and resources if they choose to use them.

Mental Health And Substance Abuse Resources For Vets

Resources are available for combat veterans who need substance abuse and mental health support:

  • The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a 24/7 crisis line where veterans can call (dial 988, then press 1), text (838255), or start an online to find help and support. There is also a search function on the Crisis Line website to find local substance abuse and mental health resources.
  • The VA also has a list of mobile coaching and support apps available for mental health and substance use-related topics.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a free, 24/7 hotline for those wanting support and referrals. That number is 1-800-622-4357.
  • Stop Soldier Suicide has resources for veterans grappling with suicidal and mental health ideation.
  • And, of course, if you are worried about the immediate health and safety of yourself or a loved one, call 911.
  • If you know a Veteran in California who is struggling with a mental health or substance use disorder (SUD), contact Confidential Recovery at (619) 452–1200.

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