Veterans of military service in the United States encounter many difficulties when resuming civilian life. Substance use disorder (SUD) and addiction are some of those difficulties. The rates of mental health problems and substance abuse among veterans have been in the spotlight over the past few years, and many efforts have been made to help veterans overcome addiction.
Post-secondary education may be one way that veterans can prevent or recover from substance abuse. This article will discuss the issues surrounding addiction in veterans and how higher learning may help veterans to overcome substance use disorders and adopt sober living.
According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS), 7% of veterans had problems with drug use in 2019. This percentage is slightly higher than 5.3% of the general population of U.S. adults over age 18. Of those veterans experiencing drug use issues, 80% struggled with alcohol abuse and 7% used both alcohol and illegal drugs. Besides alcohol, veterans commonly abuse marijuana and psychotherapeutic drugs.
In addition, 10% of veterans ages 18 to 25 misused prescription pain relievers, compared to 5.5% of the general U.S. population of the same age. Prescription pain reliever misuse is more common in veterans than the use of illegal street drugs. For example, 505,000 veterans misused prescription pain killers while only 59,000 used heroin in 2019.1
Alcohol tends to pose problems for veterans, and alcohol abuse is the most common form of substance use disorder experienced by veterans. A 2017 study found that the most common forms of substance use disorder in both male and female veterans were heavy episodic drinking, more commonly called binge drinking, alongside cigarette smoking. Alcohol and drug use problems tend to be more prevalent in male veterans (10.5% alcohol abuse, 4.8% drug abuse) than female veterans (4.8% alcohol abuse, 2.4% drug abuse). 2
Other reasons veterans may experience addiction include:
Physical pain from combat wounds or the physical demands of military duties can lead to the use of prescription pain killers for soldiers. If these medications are addictive, their use can continue once a soldier has become a veteran. During the 2000s, the use of prescription pain medications became widespread among military personnel and veterans. Between 2001 and 2009, military physicians quadrupled the number of prescriptions they wrote for narcotic pain medications and the percentage of veterans receiving opioid pain medications increased from 17% to 24%. 5
Traumatic Brain Injury
Modern warfare and the explosive weapons used in war have increased the number of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) that soldiers receive. It is estimated that 22% of all combat-related injuries received during the Iraq and Afghanistan operations involved TBI, compared to just 12% of Vietnam-related injuries. 6 Research is ongoing regarding the relationship between TBI and substance use disorder, but a 2013 study found that airmen with mild TBI were at significantly increased risk of developing alcohol dependence, nicotine dependence, and non-dependent use of alcohol and drugs as compared to airmen with more severe TBI. 7
A symptom of PTSD in veterans may be insomnia or difficulty sleeping. Benzodiazepine medications may be used to treat insomnia since they have a tranquilizing effect. However, because benzodiazepines are addictive, their use may lead to prescription drug addiction.
Veterans may avoid SUD by pursuing higher learning after their military service. One reason many people enter military service is to earn benefits, including money for college. Veterans may take advantage of programs to pay for college, including the most widely known program, the Veterans Educational Assistance Act, or GI Bill. This program provides veterans with money for tuition, books, and housing plus other types of VA benefits for veterans who attend community college, technical college, apprenticeships, and other higher educations. In addition to the GI Bill, VA education programs that aid veterans who want to pursue higher education include:
Yellow Ribbon Program
Veterans Educational Assistance Program (VEAP)
State-Based Veterans Programs
Edith Nourse Rogers Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) Scholarship
Veterans Employment through Technology Education Courses
Because of the programs listed above, veterans have a distinct advantage when engaged in higher learning. VA education allows veterans to obtain degrees that are fully or partially paid for. As a result, veterans who utilize these programs have less debt when they graduate than those who don’t.
The above discussion relates to one very important point: a person’s employment status directly affects his or her risk for developing a substance use disorder. A long-term study that examined the relationship between job status and the use of illegal drugs found that people who were employed full time were less likely to report illegal drug use than unemployed people. This study on data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2005 to 2011 found that 8% of people employed full time reported illegal drug use in the past month, compared to 18% of people who were unemployed. 9
Additional studies found that levels of education and economic status correlated with substance abuse. These studies discovered that almost half of people in treatment for substance abuse never graduated from high school, 20% of welfare recipients admitted to using illegal drugs, and a person making less than $20,000 per year had a 1/3 lower chance of recovering from cocaine abuse than a person earning more than $70,000 per year10. For veterans, the choice to attend college and earn a degree that will lead to a full-time job will lower the chances of developing a substance use disorder.
Even though pursuing post-secondary education lowers a veteran’s risk of developing an addiction, the risk is still there, and the pressures of college life can lead to substance abuse. Many colleges offer assistance to students who develop substance use disorders, but some colleges pay special attention to this particular problem within the student body. One way a college or university can do this is by providing a collegiate recovery program, or CRP.
Veterans with substance use disorders who attend college still need to pay for treatment for their addictions. This might be a challenge for some, considering that veterans typically receive treatment in VA facilities and these facilities might not be located near their college campuses. Fortunately, veterans with substance use disorders have options regarding where they receive treatment and how their VA benefits pay for that treatment.
The increased attention that substance use disorders and mental health issues have received in recent years has led to an increase in the amount of research and programming that the VA provides in this area. Besides receiving treatment at a VA health care facility, programs that veterans can use to help pay for substance abuse treatment include:
Through post-secondary education, veterans can obtain degrees and participate in treatment programs at the same time. This degree allows them to earn higher incomes and improve their overall quality of life while reducing their chances of relapsing. Collegiate recovery programs, VA education benefits like the GI Bill, and VA health care programs all play a role in helping veterans get the help they need with addiction while attending school. If you know a veteran struggling with addiction, encourage them to get help as soon as possible, and to consider higher learning as one of their options while they pursue sober living.