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Most Americans know someone – a co-worker, friend, parent, sibling, spouse, child, or other family member – who has served or is currently serving in some branch of the military. Those who have actively served in wars may have experienced psychological stressors that an average person can never imagine. These veterans develop a range of coping mechanisms – some healthy and some devastating.

Is the problem of substance abuse worse among veterans than the general population?

Unfortunately, yes. Dependence (defined as experiencing withdrawal symptoms if use of the substance is stopped) seems to be about the same in both veterans and the general population. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 7% of veterans have a substance abuse disorder as defined by medical diagnostic criteria. However, veterans use alcohol more frequently and more intensely than the general public; they are also more likely to drive under the influence. Marijuana use among veterans is reported at 3.5% in a month, compared to 3.0% of the general population.

Why do veterans engage in substance abuse?

Research has indicated that stress can be a major factor in both substance abuse and relapse. During the time in the military, most veterans have experienced some degree of stress. However, some veterans are given a diagnosis of “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD). PTSD occurs when an individual is in a traumatic situation in which he or she feels terrified and helpless; the person’s life may be genuinely threatened in the situation, and afterwards, he or she tries not to think about it, but may unintentionally obsess over the circumstances. Clearly, veterans may experience just this type of situation in war and may turn to substances as a form of avoidance coping. These episodes of psychological distress were more frequent among female veterans (about 15%) than male veterans (about 7%). Younger veterans (age 18-25) reported episodes of psychological distress more often than their older counterparts. Interestingly, this group also had higher rates of substance abuse.
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