Veterans and Substance Abuse Disorders: Stats & More

by | Last updated Jun 12, 2023 | Published on Feb 16, 2021 | At Risk Populations | 0 comments

Veterans and Substance Abuse

Substance abuse has reached epidemic proportions in the United States and the country’s military veterans are no exception to its prevalence. Rates are low amongst active military who face strict zero-tolerance policies and even prosecution for engaging in drug use but once military personnel retire from active duty, the rates of illicit drug use jump. Sadly, nearly 70% of veterans with a substance abuse disorder do not receive any sort of treatment. Veterans and substance abuse is a growing concern as more and more evidence shows a link between military service and drug use. 

Why Veteran Substance Abuse Is So Common

There are a number of circumstances unique to military service that contribute to the likelihood of developing a substance abuse problem. While many can be attributed to the stressful conditions of active duty such as deployment or combat exposure and the subsequent PTSD that develops, the causes aren’t limited to this. 

Other psychological factors include the traumatic pasts that may have driven military personnel to enlist in the first place such as trying to escape physical or sexual abuse. Even amongst civilians, these types of traumatic experiences severely increase the likelihood of substance abuse. Some individuals turn to drugs as a coping method or from the development of mental health issues which often give way to drug abuse.  

Another consideration is physical causes, specifically issues related to pain management. Two-thirds of veterans report experiencing some sort of physical pain and are increasingly being given opioid prescriptions to manage it. As such, opioid abuse amongst veterans follows the same trends as the nation as a whole and has a high likelihood of resulting in abuse and addiction. 

Veterans and Substance Abuse Statistics

The Department of Veterans Affairs has reported a rise in veteran substance abuse rates over the past two decades despite efforts to curb problematic drug use. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, at least one in every ten veterans has been diagnosed with some sort of substance abuse disorder. However, these numbers are likely much higher as the data often relies on self-reporting. 

  • Alcohol and tobacco use are the most common types of drug abuse among veterans
  • Male veterans are more likely to suffer from substance abuse disorder (SUD), particularly those that are younger (less than 25 years old) and unmarried
  • 30% of veteran suicides were preceded by alcohol or drug abuse
  • 20% of veteran deaths were caused by high-risk behavior attributed to a drug or alcohol overdose
  • Veterans with high levels of combat exposure are much more likely to engage in heavy drinking (26.8%) compared to others (17%)
  • Opioid prescriptions by military doctors have increased 4X
  • Opioid prescriptions amongst VA health systems increased from 17% to 24%
  • The majority of veteran opioid prescriptions were for oxycodone (46.9%), hydrocodone (39.5%), or codeine (6.8%)
  • Prescription drug abuse is highest in the Army and lowest amongst the Coast Guard
  • Veterans with PTSD or some other mental health disorder are almost 3X as likely to receive higher doses of opioid medications
  • Illicit opioid overdose rates (caused by heroin or synthetic opioids) increased from 14% in 2010 to 14% in 2016 

Substance Abuse Help for Veterans: TRICARE

A growing number of addiction treatment centers are rising to the occasion by working with military insurance to offer low-cost substance abuse treatment. The Freedom Center is one of them and our facilities accept TRICARE, a health program for uniformed service members and their families. TRICARE offers dedicated coverage for an array of substance use disorder treatment options which include:

As awareness of veterans’ substance abuse rates has increased, so has the support by agencies and institutions to provide much-needed assistance. Resolving veteran substance abuse is as much about providing treatment for drug use as it is about addressing underlying mental health issues. To learn about the programs that specifically target the joint presence of substance abuse and mental illness, ask us about our dual diagnosis program or any of our other personalized treatment plans.  

Our admissions team can check your benefits and verify your TRICARE coverage for FREE. Contact us to get started today!


Written by: Nick B.

Nicholas B. is the Corporate Director of Admissions for our substance abuse and behavioral health company. Nick’s mission is to provide quality care to every person that reaches out regarding substance abuse or behavioral health questions. Knowledge of an ever-changing industry, compassion when dealing with people, and compliance in every decision are the forces that drive his personal and professional growth.

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